Criminals plant a bomb on a high-speed train. It will explode when the train slows down, unless a ransom is paid.
You know that crazy and amazing movie that you just saw that seems to have broken the genre mold and feels fresh, new, and original? Sadly, chances are that great new movie you're so excited about isn't all that new but merely a spin on an old story - or more likely a story from another country. When 1994's action thriller 'Speed' broke loose across movie screens I was plastered to the back of my seat at the movie theater. It was fresh, fast, new, and exciting. I learned later that it's a loose remake of the 1975 Japanese film 'The Bullet Train' directed by Junya Sato starring the legendary Sonny Chiba and Ken Takakura.
The high-speed bullet train Hikari 109 is bound for Tokyo with over 1500 passengers and crew on board. At the helm of the locomotive is conductor Aoki. He's responsible for making the stops and getting his passengers to their destinations safely. When Aoki's director of operations Kuramochi (Ken Utsui) informs him that a bomb has been placed on the train and will detonate if they slow below 80km per hour, Aoki becomes a pawn in a deranged former businessman's (Ken Takakura) plan to extort five million dollars from the Japanese government. As passengers become restless and traffic on the line threatens to stop to train, Aoki and his crew will have to work against the clock as well as the computer system designed to automatically stop the train in order to find the bomb and thwart the madman's scheme.
When I was twelve I was thrilled when my big sister took me to see 'Speed' in the theater with her. She'd seen it just a few days before and knew I would eat it up. The Jan de Bont helmed thriller starring Keanu Reeves and a scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper was the movie of the summer for me in 1994. I loved every minute of it. So, when I learned through reading a review that it was actually a remake of a 1975 Japanese movie, I was thrilled and eagerly sought it out. To my initial delight, I discovered my local Video Watch (later known as Hollywood Video) happened to have a copy of 'The Bullet Train' on VHS. Not long after putting the tape in my player, disappointment set in. The tape was in horrible shape, color warped from a magnet and amazingly enough - no subtitles for a Japanese language film. It was also cut down from its original 152 minutes to a paltry 92. Suffice to say, my initial introduction to this flick wasn't under the best of circumstances.
Thankfully, I can now sit back knowing that I've enjoyed the complete experience of 'The Bullet Train.' While it's easy to see where this film left its mark on various plot aspects of 'Speed,' I was impressed at the larger scope of this movie. While certainly being an action thriller, 'The Bullet Train' has more kinship with an Irwin Allen disaster movie like 'The Towering Inferno' or 'The Poseidon Adventure.' The only difference being that the plot revolves around a mad bomber rather than a freak accident or a force of nature. This is a cast of thousands sort of film where big stars of their respective country are given middling to prominent roles without a standout lead. While Sonny Chiba's Aoki may be more or less the primary hero, he's hardly the only man on the train working to save the day. It's this ensemble approach to the casting that makes 'The Bullet Train' an interesting and thrilling flick - let alone the practical effects and stunt work!
What I love about thrillers of this nature is the aspect that one solution often leads to another bigger problem to solve. It's this constant building of set pieces that keeps 'The Bullet Train' moving. Even when the police figure out the identity of the bomber and his back story, there are bigger more pressing matters to attend to - like getting the train onto a side track when another train is barreling down on them with only seconds to act. 'The Bullet Train' is a true edge-of-your-seat thriller that keeps your eyes fixed on the screen and your heart in your throat. If you've only known 'Speed,' It's time to give 'The Bullet Train' a ride. At over two and a half hours, you'll feel like time just flew by.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Bullet Train' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time and is pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a clear sturdy standard Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as an essay by Film Historian Julie Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Featuring a 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, 'The Bullet Train' is given a gritty and impressive Blu-ray upgrade. With that magnet-warped VHS as my only basis for comparison, I have to say that this HD master for 'The Bullet Train' is a massive improvement. That said, there are some bits of age-related wear and tear that pepper the source print for this master. Normally I that would be chalked up to a negative but in this case, I actually feel that the nitty gritty appearance actually helps the tone of this film. Having the occasional scratch or patch of speckling show up proves to be a nice way to grounding the film and pitching the intensity of the action. Film grain is apparent throughout and nicely balanced without ever becoming too noisy or intrusive. Colors are of that 70s primary rich variety that tends to favor the navy blue tones. Reds have a nice amount of pop and presence as well with stable and healthy flesh tones. Black levels can be a tad on the murky side of things, sometimes blacks are oppressively black making it slightly difficult to see what is happening early in the film when the bombers minions are setting their traps. With only minor quibbles here and there, the transfer is a nice complement to the film's presence and pace.
With a Japanese DTS-HD MA 1.0 mix with English subtitles, the audio mix for 'The Bullet Train' gets a hefty mono workout. Dialogue comes through clean and clear throughout without any intrusion from the impressive sound effects mixing or the intense score from composer Hachiro Aoyama. While being a mono track, imaging is on the subdued side of things, but when you have rushing trains narrowly missing each other by inches, the cacophony of rushing winds, screams, screeching breaks proves to be pretty immersive even coming out of one single channel. The track also displays some healthy layering of elements ensuring that there is just enough separation to give a sense of atmosphere and space - even in the confined claustrophobic cabin of the train. All around this is a damn impressive audio mix.
Big Move, Big Panic: Junya Sato on 'The Bullet Train': (HD 24:41) This is a very interesting recent interview with the director as he talks about the genesis of the film, how he and the producers set out to produce a big Hollywood action thriller that was so popular at the time.
For action thriller junkies looking for a great fix, 'The Bullet Train' delivers. While if you've already seen 'Speed' this plot may be a bit familiar, the change of scenery and character focus helps this flick operate on the level of a classic disaster film, rather than a summer action movie. Plus it features the great Sonny Chiba in an understated character-driven role! Twilight Time does a bang up job bringing this 70s gem to Blu-ray with a terrific A/V presentation. Extras may be a bit slim, but they're rewarding in their own ways. Genre fans should have a great time with 'The Bullet Train' making it an easy one to recommend.