Bullet Train Review
Director: Junya Sato
Starring: Ken Takakura, Sonny Chiba, Ken Utsui, Fumio Watanabe, Kei Yamamoto
Former businessman Okita (Takakura) and his associates have placed explosives on the Hikari 109 bullet train with the detonator set to go should the train go below a speed of 80 kph. As the authorities search frantically to find the would-be bombers, the police, railway workers, and passengers must find a way to survive the fastest death trap in the world.
Prolific director Junya Sato helms this bloated but hugely entertaining thriller which would serve as the basis for the Keanu Reeves blockbuster Speed. Channeling a very Japanese sensibility in terms of blockbuster material, the film takes a long look at the many different parties associated to the event. From the panic-stricken engineer (Sonny Chiba) to Okita’s accomplices and their pasts, the film is not afraid to give real and believable motivations for the key players and their actions throughout the picture.
Takakura’s Okita is terrific as the brilliant mastermind looking to get 5 million USD from the government for the safety of 1500 passengers on the train. His flashbacks paint a picture as someone who is far removed from evil but tempered because of his circumstances and history to take extreme measures. His accomplices, played by Akira Oda and Kei Yamamoto, bring very different sensibilities to the henchmen archetype; Oda is fiercely loyal and tenacious while Yamamoto brings a driven and thoughtful focus to his character. Easily sympathetic, the film goes to no short length to instill sympathy towards our antagonists. Takakura himself delivers a terrific and commanding performance with much of his star presence on full display. He’s logical and deeply relatable; a far cry from what one would suspect given his vocation in the film.
Peppered with solid performances throughout, Utsui stands out perhaps the most for his role as a passionate Railway employee looking to diffuse the situation without any loss of life. Tormented by the incompetence of the police and frustration at the inability to do his job he is the good everyman perspective in a film filled with differing perception. Overall, the supporting cast delivers an admirable job aside from the passengers of the train who overreact in the way only a Japanese crowd in panic is able. It is forgivable since the focus rarely shifts to them as opposed to the typical Western perspectives of similar material.
The production is solid and the utilization of miniatures and dynamic camera movement and techniques is a lot of fun. From high speed cameras, some iffy green screen, and terrific framing in perspective shots, the picture rarely has you bored by what is on screen. The music is an absolute stand out as well; the funk and jazz intonations, as well as typical dramatic piano, is placed and scored well.
In the end, Bullet Train is one of the more iconic 1970s studio films and for some reason also one of the least recognized. A forerunner in the method of Japanese big budget cinema, it tends to run a bit too long and meanders with some unnecessary exposition, but it remains blockbuster cinema done right with the right amount of thrills and emotional investment. Despite its relative obscurity in the West, it has been widely available for years with my review screening being done on the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release. As a note, the film has never looked better while older films tend to benefit less from the increased resolution than more recent fare, their release is perhaps the best English friendly version out there. As a supplement, it also carries a 25 minute documentary on the making of the film which was a solid special feature for anyone that is a fan of 70s Japanese cinema. Highly recommended.