The Bullet Train

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Disaster movies summed up in one factoid: Airport (1970) to Airplane! (1980). You’re welcome. The Bullet Train comes slap dang in the middle, 1975, and though it’s often sold as being the inspiration for 1994’s Speed, which it is, it’s just as significant for being a grand summing-up of the entire disaster movie genre.

Let’s deal with the Speed stuff first. A bomb has been fitted to one particular Japanese bullet train, or shinkansen (Shinkansen daibakuha is the Japanese title), on the Tokyo to Hakata route. Once the train reaches 80kph the bomb becomes armed. After that, if the speed drops below 80kph, the bomb will detonate. So far, so Sandra Bullock.

But there the resemblance really ends. Instead we get the full 360-degree disaster-movie sweep, taking in the train’s driver, played by an unusually subdued Sonny Chiba (no fists, no fury), the passengers on board, the guys at the control centre trying to defuse the situation, the cops trying to find the perp, the train company top brass weighing up various least bad options, politicians being generally ineffectual, the press illuminating and obstructing, all of them doing what they need to do – subtitles are barely necessary it’s so familiar.

Where it breaks with the formula is in its handling of the villain, Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura), a man driven to commit a desperate act by the collapse of his business and the breakdown of his marriage. We empathise with this potential mass murderer. When this film first debuted in the USA, around 30 minutes was lopped from the original 2hr 32m running time. It’s Okita’s backstory that got cut.

The other fairly bold deviation from formula is the way so much time is spent away from the train itself, with the police trying to track down Okita and his gang. This is driven to an extent by the casting of a name like Takakura (not known as the Japanese Clint Eastwood for nothing), and while it gives The Bullet Train some distinction in terms of storytelling, and Takakura’s fans something to watch, it doesn’t do much for the pace.

Ken Takakura as the mastermind behind the bomb
Ken Takakura as the mastermind behind it all

Back to the train, where of course there’s a businessman getting emotionally out of control and a pregnant woman going into labour. Director Jun’ya Satô handles the rising panic among the passengers very well, with a nervy, fast-moving camera, using the exclamatory sudden zoom for emphasis. Zoom, a lot of zoom.

In the control room, meanwhile, the camera is also vibrantly alive, switching from face to face as phone calls are made, tough decisions are taken and the value of human life is debated. Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack hover spiritually nearby.

Fans of Airplane! will recognise the scene where a hysterical woman on the train gets a hefty slap in the face, five full years before Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker brought the curtain down on the disaster movie with their brilliant send-up. Did they steal it from here? More likely Satô and his fellow writers were also familiar with 1957’s Zero Hour!, which ZAZ used as source material for their film. (They used so much of it, in fact, that they decided to play safe and buy the rights to it.)

Satô got his break making yakuza movies and went on to make big-budget epics, like The Go Masters (1982) and The Silk Road (1988). He knows what his brief is here – to turn out an American-looking movie – and he sticks to it, from the opening helicopter shot over the cityscape of Tokyo to the climactic scenes which race against time to defuse the bomb. Throw in a wah-chukka-wah soundtrack by Hachirô Aoyama and there’s your 1970s right there.

So, no, no relation at all to the Brad Pitt Bullet Train from 2022.

The film comes bundled in various collections, often with Sonny Chiba’s name on them (though it’s far from a Sonny Chiba film). If you’re looking for the best picture quality, the way to go is the Toei Video release, which is clean, bright and hi-def. Or the Eureka Classics 2K version, which I haven’t seen, but is in the pipeline as I type. Eureka generally do a re-release proud in terms of extras, booklets, expert commentary etc, and from their press release that looks to be the case here.

I believe it is absolutely obligatory for me to end with an “all aboard!”

The Bullet Train – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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