Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
Released on: December 13th, 2016.
Director: Junya Sato
Cast: Ken Takakura, Sonny Chiba, Key Yamamoto, Akira Oda, Raita Ryu, Tetsuro Tamba, Ken Utsui
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Japan’s famous Shinkansen (or The Bullet Train) travels regularly from Shinijuku to Hakata every day and is an important lifeline of the Japanese public transportation system. Sonny Chiba (Golgo 13 – Assignment Kowloon, The Street Fighter movies and The Executioner) plays a conductor on board one such Bullet Train when the word gets out that a terrorist (played exceptionally well by tough as nails Yakuza film stalwart Ken Takakura) has planted a bomb on board. This bomb will detonate should the train go below 80 km/hour. The only way to save the passengers and all the innocent bystanders from certain doom is to give into the terrorists and pay them off the huge ransom they’re demanding. But of course, as the story plays out, things get decidedly more complicated for all involved…
Sound familiar? It should, as this 1975 Toei Studios picture was the inspiration for the 1994 Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock blockbuster Speed.
Directed by Junya Sato (The Peking Man), The Bullet Train is everything Speed wanted to be and more. It’s a tighter, more realistic film than Speed with more believable (and more interesting) characters and a more believable outcome. What makes the movie effective, and one of the better Japanese disaster films of the 1970s, is that it’s unfortunately an all too authentic idea. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine this happening in the real world (especially in the current political climate). It’s certainly much easier to believe that a madman could plant a bomb on a train than it is to imagine a giant lizard could come out of the ocean and destroy Tokyo (no respect meant to any giant radioactive lizard monsters out there – you know we love you).
The Bullet Train starts off at a very fast pace and it doesn’t let down the whole way through. The film takes the viewer along for the ride with the characters, an important aspect of how the movie really comes together and pushes itself along- it makes you feel like you’re there. The actions and reactions of the crew and passengers on the train are things that might actually happen given the circumstances under which they occur. Fights erupt over who’s allowed to use the telephone first. A woman goes into labor. Passengers try to leap off the train. A television crew breaks out cameras documenting the entire event to sell if they make it off alive. The conductor is absolutely terrified the entire time, only wanting it all to end as quickly and safely as possible.
With a cast consisting of Chiba, Takakura, Sue Shiomi (Sister Streetfighter), Takashi Shimura (The Seven Samurai), Eiji Go (Tokyo Drifter) not to mention Tetsuro Tamba (Story Of Riki and countless other classics), the film was a veritable “who’s who” of Japanese action and crime movies.
What is important about this release is that it delivers the complete 152 minute version of the film that fleshes out the story much more coherently and adds a lot more character development than what we were treated to in the shorter version of the film. While the shorter U.S. version (not included on this release) flows very quickly, almost too quickly at times, the full length version is a more complete story and it makes a whole lot more sense in terms of sub plots and character motivations. The shorter version was released by Crash Cinema on DVD years ago and seems to be out of print since that release.
Twilight Time brings The Bullet Train to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed properly in the film’s original 2.35.1 widescreen aspect ratio on a 50GB disc with the movie itself taking up roughly 40GBs of space on that disc (a good thing, given its length). Generally the picture quality here is quite good, it’s definitely a nice upgrade over both the Optimum UK DVD release and the interlaced DVD release that came out through BCI/Adness in the Sonny Chiba Action Pack and Sonny Chiba Collection boxed sets years ago. Some softness inherent in the original photography is noticeable but there aren’t any issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement. If detail here isn’t reference quality, it’s quite good and there’s decent texture on display as well. Colors look good as well, even if they are a bit darker than what we’ve seen before.
Twilight Time Blu-ray:
The Japanese language DTS-HD Mono mix is fine and free of any major problems. There's some shrillness in the high end in a couple of spots and one or two scenes that are a little on the flat side but that’s nitpicking. For the most part, the disc sounds just fine and while the mix isn't going to blow anyone's ass out the backdoor of your home theater, it'll do the trick. Sadly, the English language dub that was on the US VHS home video release has not been included, but the Japanese dub is far superior (it'd have been nice to have it for the sake of completion even if it isn’t very good).
The main extra on the disc is a featurette called Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Sato On The Bullet Train. In this twenty-five minute piece, which is in Japanese with English subtitles, Sato talks about how the producers wanted a movie that would cash in on the disaster movie craze popular in the United States at the time and how he was brought on board to direct the picture. From there he talks about the script for the picture, who wrote what for the film, casting the movie, how economics in Japan at the time shaped the storyline and how they tried to work in plenty of suspense in the film. He also talks about how the film was edited for international sales and how it became a big hit in France which led to the picture being re-released in Japan. Sato also gives his thoughts on the actors and actresses that he directed in the film, the sets that were built for the movie, the use of miniatures in the film and a fair bit more. It’s a pretty interesting piece and fans of the film should definitely take the time to give this a watch.
Aside from that we get an isolated score and effects track, menus and chapter selection. Inside the clear Blu-ray case is an insert booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo that focus on Ken Takakura’s involvement in the picture and which makes some interesting observations about his character and what leads him to do what he does in the film. The booklet also contains some stills from the film as well as its original Japanese theatrical poster art alongside credits for the feature and the disc.
The Final Word:
The Bullet Train is a rock solid thriller featuring tight direction and an excellent cast. The movie is on the long side to be sure, but it never has trouble holding our attention thanks to a great premise and some interesting, well-written characters. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release is a good one, presenting the movie in nice shape and with a really interesting director interviews as its main supplement. Here’s hoping there’s more seventies Japanese films in the label’s future!