mon 20/05/2024

Blu-ray: The Bullet Train | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Bullet Train

Blu-ray: The Bullet Train

The 1975 Japanese action thriller that inspired 'Speed'

Nightmare express: Shinichi (Sonny) Chiba as the driver in 'The Bullet Train'Eureka Video

Last year’s Brad Pitt vehicle Bullet Train was an affable action comedy except in those parts – including the dreadful coda – when it was an insufferably smirky one. Freighted with more thrills, intelligence, gravitas, and social commentary, 1975’s The Bullet Train, released in a 2K restoration on a Eureka Classics Blu-ray, is the better movie.

Director and co-writer Jun'ya Satô’s main character is HIkari 109, a button-nosed 0-series (first-generation) Shinkansen express travelling the 1100 km between Tokyo and Hakata, a trip that then took seven hours. Seeking a $5 million pay-off, criminals have rigged it with a bomb that’ll kill the 1500 passengers if the speed falls below 80 km-per-hour; they’ll also be imperilled if excessive speed triggers the ATC command detonator. 

No wonder sweat trickles down the jaw of driver Aoki, an ironically sedentary role for the popular action star Shinichi (Sonny) Chiba. “How I miss the old steam locomotive days,” he wails.

Early on, the state-of-the-art computerised railway control room is proudly presented by a documentary-like narrator as the camera roves around it. Lest the transit chief Kuramochi (Ken Utsui) and his crew doubt the bomb threat, the criminal mastermind Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura) has had his boys place a bomb under a goods train, which duly explodes after the engineers (who resemble World War II pilots) have leaped from the cab.

Satô couldn’t hope to sustain knife-edge tension over the film’s 152-minutes, but he took time, in any case, to develop via flashbacks (one of them an inventive montage of monochrome photos) the back stories of Okita and his two accomplices; a third is a grimacing thug (Eiji Gō) who’s been arrested and is on the train being shipped west for his trial.

The Bullet TrainThe 40-year-old Okita was a businessman whose precision instrument company failed. Though not intending to kill anyone, he cynically devised his heinous get-rich-quick plot after his wife left him, taking their young son with him. Takakura, best known in the West for his performances opposite Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza (1974) and in Black Rain (1989), brings his trademark dourness to The Bullet Train but also a humanising tenderness.

It’s rare to see a villain show such compassion for his henchmen as Okita does for the loyal Hiroshi Ōshiro (Akira Odo), a kid he hired for his firm after rescuing him from the street, and the radical activist Masaru Kogu (Kei Yamamoto). Satô made these misfits likable in comparison to the railway company executives and politicians who, not untypically, are more concerned about their jobs than the endangered passengers.

Okita’s ex-wife (Masayo Utsunomiya) is also given a flashback in which she recalls the moment their marriage collapsed – her husband glibly informing her he wouldn’t be paying back the money her relatives scraped together to keep his company afloat. In another vignette, woven into the story as detectives chase their tails frantically searching for the conspirators, Kogu’s ex-girlfriend (Mitsuru Mori), hair in curlers, recounts how he sponged off her for two-and-a-half years. “He said I was taking his manhood, so he walked out on me?” she pouts. “Isn’t that horrible?”

The angry pregnant wife (Miyako Tasaka) of another feckless man is a passenger on the train. When she goes into labour owing to the stress of the journey, her agonised writhing is intercut with that of Kogu, who has been shot by the cops on his way to meet Okita. 

Kogu’s plight brings home to Okita the ugliness of his crime. “We are cheap, ugly creatures. That’s what we are,” Kogu agrees in the film’s best dramatic scene, though he believes accomplishing their goal would mean they’re not ugly anymore, even if he dies. His kamikaze spirit is an element in the film’s commentary on honour and stoicism. As Okita’s main opponent and rival in cool decisiveness, Kuramochi, played with maximum restraint by Utsui, espouses grace under pressure. 

Many of the supporting players overact extravagantly, which might make them seem as ridiculous as the bland musical score. But Western viewers do not necessarily appreciate how Japanese stage acting traditions filtered into movies or the tonal contrasts that are not only acceptable but expected by native audiences. The Bullet Train was a massive hit in Japan.

Satô’s direction was brisk and efficient. His use of zoom shots to emphasise revelations frequently draws attention to the camera and artificialises the action, but zooms were a common aspect of international film grammar in the 1970s, favoured in Hollywood by Robert Altman among others. Superbly orchestrated, The Bullet Train is one of the best disaster movies of its era.

The Blu-ray includes the original Japanese theatrical version and the dubbed international version; an essay by Barry Forshaw that usefully contextualises the film in Japanese studio and genre history; and an archival featurette with Satô. There's also a new audio commentary and interviews with critics Tony Rayns and Kim Newman.

Kogu's kamikaze spirit is an element in the film’s commentary on honour and stoicism


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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