The Bullet Train Review
Whilst the seventies disaster movie – best typified by Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno - is generally seen as an American phenomenon, other countries have tried their hand at the genre. Indeed, just as Airport 1975 was gaining a release, so too was Japan’s The Bullet Train. As the title suggests this is a disaster movie of the rail variety meaning that The Cassandra Crossing and perhaps Rollercoaster are the key reference points, but then it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Speed, made almost 20 years later. Essentially we have a bomb planted on the titular passenger vehicle which gets activated once it reaches a speed of 80km per hour and it explode if it ever slows down beyond that point…
That said, much of The Bullet Train will be overly familiar from the major disaster movies. There’s an all-star cast (from Sonny Chiba sweating profusely as the driver to Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura as the President of National Railway), the vast demographic of passengers including everyone from the famous to the infamous, and all the standard obstacles which have a tendency of getting in the way: a stuck brake, a pregnant woman, another train coming in the opposite direction. Indeed, we arrive at the kind of film so incessantly sent-up by Airplane! and its sequel; despite the different language, there is very little to separate The Bullet Train from its American cousins.
Certainly, Junya Sato’s direction is just as lacking in subtlety. Various flashbacks and snippets of voice-over are clumsily deployed more as an awkward way of sneaking in plot points than anything else, whilst the back projection and bunch of suits sweating it out back at HQ doesn’t really bring in the tension. Consider the ransom swap in Kurosawa’s High and Low and the differences are immediate – quite simply, The Bullet Train has nothing on the real-life (i.e. real train), real-time sequence which formed a centrepiece to that classic.
Yet if Sato is guilty of being unadventurous, he does at least approach the material with a brisk pace. Within the opening 30 minutes (and bear in mind that this is full length cut and not the 89-minute international version which did the rounds in the seventies) we have passengers already panicked, the chief suspect already identified, the first obstacle overcome and the first explosion. Indeed, Sato isn’t interested in lingering over situation we’ve seen countless times before, but gets to the next one with as little fuss as possible. If he is found hanging around then it’s invariably with Ken Takakura as the chief villain and his expendable gang of co-conspirators. Admittedly, we don’t get quite as far under their skin as we would perhaps hope, but then it does demonstrate that Sato is at least trying to provide something more than mere cheap thrills.
Another of Optimum’s Sonny Chiba releases, it is disappointing to find the film which perhaps has the broadest appeal gaining the least impressive presentation quality. Certainly, we get the film in its full length form, original aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, but there are some noticeable problems. Most prominent is the softness of the image, an aspect compounded by the film’s colour scheme. Of course, the muted look is intentional, yet it only serves to make the poor clarity even worse. On top of this there is also moderate edge enhancement and presence of ghosting.
Things improve with the soundtrack, here offering the film in its original Japanese mono and with optional subs. In this case, everything is as it should be: clean, crisp and demonstrating only flaws inherent in its original production.
As for extras, these are identical to those found on all of Optimum’s other Chiba releases. We get a poster gallery, a handful of trailers and a three-page bio for the star himself, even if The Bullet Train has him share the top billing.