Twilight Time's packaging for The Bullet Train touts the 1975 Japanese thriller's potential influence on the '90s blockbuster Speed, but The Bullet Train's style and tone is pure '70s disaster spectacle. Inspired by the Hollywood blockbusters of the time, The Bullet Train is packed to its gills with stars, like The Seven Samurai's Takashi Shimura, Kinya Kitaoji of the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, and even Sister Street Fighter herself, Etsuko Shihomi. You can be forgiven for missing them, however, since many stars only appear onscreen briefly and pretty much all of them are upstaged by the premise. Even martial arts legend Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba, who is second billed, barely gets a chance to form a character.
The Bullet Train's hook is that there's a bomb on a high-speed train that will explode if the train ever drops below 80 kilometers per hour. Disgruntled working man Okita (Ken Takakura, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles) and his two misfit collaborators are behind the bombing. Unlike in most Hollywood flicks, these conspirators are not psychopathic madmen or criminal masterminds. They are just regular men who feel dumped on by society, so they have decided to score a little ransom money to even the scales. Okita is a likable antihero, similar to Sterling Hayden's character in The Killing, which leaves viewers flip-flopping about whether we should root for him or hope that his plan gets foiled.
Director Junya Sato and co-writer Ryunosuke Ono indulge in plenty of familiar disaster tropes, such as a pregnant passenger on the speeding train who goes into labor and a criminal in transport who takes advantage of the crisis to try to escape. But mostly, the filmmakers treat the train as a brewing cauldron of vaguely defined chaos, so instead they can focus on the efforts of the conspirators to secure their ransom, the cops' efforts to thwart them, and the train company's efforts to protect their passengers. Ken Utsui plays the thoughtful, super-intelligent train dispatcher whose concern for the human lives at stake makes him the emotional anchor of a fairly schematic flick.
Sato attempts a modicum of emotional depth by riddling the film with flashbacks, which flesh out the conspirators' backstories. However, these flashbacks never really offer a simple explanation (or excuse) as to why these characters would react to their hard luck by putting the lives of 1500 passengers in danger. This lack of easy answers probably explains why most foreign releases of the film have cut these sections out. Back in 2006, DVD Talk's Stuart Galbraith IV reviewed the shorter "international" version and found it pretty underwhelming. It's easy to see why, because, if you lose the flashbacks, you basically lose the sense that anyone onscreen is a dimensional human being. The uncut, 152-minute version presented on Twilight Time's Blu-ray is still not a perfect movie -- it's overstuffed and drags at various intervals -- but it has an uncommon personality which distinguishes it from other flicks of its ilk.