Purportedly the film that inspired ace 90s blockbuster ‘Speed’, Junya Sato’s epic runaway train/disaster flick can certainly claim to have influenced that Hollywood classic, but it also serves up its own epic thrills alongside a huge cast of characters and satisfying disaster spectacle.
A bunch of bad dudes led by the mighty Ken Takakura (‘Black Rain’, ’47 Ronin’) plant a bomb on a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, loaded with passengers. Warning the authorities and train staff that the bomb will go off if the train slows to under 80mph, the group demands a hefty ransom for the bomb to be deactivated. Thus, panic set sets in on the train, the ground station staff scramble to figure out how to keep the train moving above 80 without causing havoc, and the authorities desperately try to track down the gang of criminals responsible for the bomb.
A simple set up is given depth as the film becomes much more than just trying to find a way to diffuse the bomb and avert disaster. That’s still a big chunk of proceedings but at an epic two-and-half-hour runtime, Junya Sato packs in a lot more than just a single speeding bomb-enabled train. The first act is all momentum and thrilling action as the bomb is set, the passengers (non-surprisingly) freak out, and the ground train crew scramble to find a way to locate the bomb and diffuse it. We’re thrust right into the action and Sato ramps up the tension and momentum with aplomb, delivering disaster thrills. Sonny Chiba’s heroic train driver steers us through this tense packed act with brave vigour, desperately trying to keep the train above 80mph.
Chiba then takes a backseat come the second act, as focus switches to the cops attempts to track down the crims who have planted the bomb. The authorities’ quest to find the bad guys as well as the reasons for why Ken Takakura and his crew are doing what there are doing, give the film depth and the bad guy’s personality as we discover their reasoning, and see them begin to crumble under the pressure of not getting caught. This subplot is just as engaging and tense as the in-danger-from-blowing-up-train segments. Sato makes sure we’re always checking in on the train and its occupants with passengers flipping out, women going into labour, and desperate attempts to locate the bomb meaning standard disaster-movie-elements are being checked off.
A mixture of real bullet train footage and model work is utilised well to render the runaway train and while fans may be miffed that Sonny Chiba gets side-lined for a good chunk of the film (coming back into the fray for the thrilling climax!), Ken Takakura is the true star here, cutting through the film with as much cool as the sleek speeding train. While he’s effortlessly cool and confident he brings warmth and humanity to his gang leader criminal and keeps the screen alight when the action isn’t focused on the about-to-explode train and its passengers.
This new and welcome release of the cleaned up full version of the film (it was originally released in multiple heavily cut versions for international markets!) is the version to see as while the runtime is epic, it rockets along. Some may grumble the film switches too often from the speeding train to the police investigation but if you can go with the 70s disaster vibe, ‘The Bullet Train’ delivers a lot of thrilling spectacle and drama nearly fifty years after its initial release.