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Ride Brad Pitt's Bullet Train as palate cleanser after intense Thirteen Lives and Five Days at Memorial

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Bullet Train

In theaters now

Bullet Train
Bullet Train

Scott Garfield/Sony Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 'Bullet Train'

Snakes on a plane, assassins on a train: Some concepts are so blood simple, they can sell themselves in a sentence fragment. Who needs verbs when you have katanas, Bad Bunny, and Brad Pitt smirking in a bucket hat? (There is in fact a snake somewhere on board this Bullet Train, though its venom-tipped slithering must compete with a thousand other ways to die.)

The film that follows largely delivers on the high-speed berserkery of its premise — a manic neon candygram stuffed with cameos and smash-cut chaos, hurtling breathlessly toward its gonzo end. Pitt gets much of the screen time as an affable and possibly lightly stoned American hitman code-named Ladybug by his brisk handler, played by Sandra Bullock (who largely appears as a disembodied voice on his phone). His job is to board a sleek commuter train bound for Kyoto, take possession of a silver briefcase, and disembark; easy-peasy.

Alas, not: There are some dozen other would-be takers on the train, including a pair of bickering Cockney wet-work specialists (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson); a pouty sweater-vested schoolgirl (Joey King) who is not what she seems; a homicidal groom bent on revenge (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. reggaeton god Bad Bunny); a father and son (Andrew Koji and the great, elegant Hiroyuki Sanada) with their own score to settle; and a German assassin with a flair for fatal intoxicants (Zazie Beetz).

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) hardly needs more pretext than that to embark on a series of adrenalized, balletically violent set pieces: The vibe, essentially, is "Agatha Christie murder mystery art-directed by Guy Ritchie," though the movie also feels looser and more inclusive than many films in the splattery comedic action genre that has dominated the last two decades, tipping as much toward the lush eye-popping absurdity of Everything Everywhere All at Once as it does the crasser testosterone antics of Kingsmen, The Gentlemen, et al. Easily 20 minutes too long, Bullet Train doesn't have a destination, really, or a moral imperative other than mayhem. But it's got a ticket to ride. Grade: B+ —Leah Greenblatt

Thirteen Lives

On Prime Video now

THIRTEEN LIVES
THIRTEEN LIVES

Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Amazon Prime Thira ‘Aum’ Chutikul, Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanaku, Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell, and Viggo Mortenson in 'Thirteen Lives'

Give Ron Howard an overwhelming element — air, fire, ocean — and he will give you a movie. Though he's worked in nearly every conceivable genre, the veteran director seems to have an enduring affinity for stories that pit man against the colossal, almost casual cruelty of the natural world (see: Backdraft, Apollo 13, In the Heart of the Sea).

Like those other films, Thirteen Lives is also based on a real-life incident: the 2017 plight of 12 young boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. What was meant to be a leisurely after-school adventure became an international incident when the team found themselves cut off by sudden torrential rains with no food and a dwindling oxygen supply; the 18 harrowing days that followed were covered breathlessly by global media and recounted anew in an excellent documentary last year called The Rescue. (There is also a Netflix "semi-documentary" limited series slated for release this September).

Thirteen follows much of Rescue's linear structure and even some of its stylistic tricks, though Howard adds something only a man in his position can: movie stars. Along with a supporting cast of native Thai actors, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen lead an improbably Adonis-like crew that includes Joel Edgerton and Death on the Nile's Tom Bateman, each one doing his earnest best to embody the normal, nebbish-y cave divers they're portraying. These men are middle-aged hobbyists — IT specialists, anesthesiologists — who just happen to love the challenge of breathing underwater in insanely inhospitable situations.

But they are also, to the local government and Navy SEALs' dismay, the only ones with the specialized skills to even attempt to extract the boys alive. What follows is a tense and methodical docudrama with a light dusting of character moments (Mortensen surveying the scene and murmuring to himself "I don't even like kids" is a highlight). It's also a waking nightmare for claustrophobes, even those well aware of the final outcome. The filmmaking itself ultimately comes off more procedural than soaring, but also refreshingly stripped of the cloying or sentimental: a remarkable story torn from true life, and faithfully told. Grade: B —L.G.

Five Days at Memorial

Premieres August 12 (Apple TV+)

Five Days at Memorial
Five Days at Memorial

Russ Martin/Apple TV+ Vera Farmiga in 'Five Days at Memorial'

Five Days at Memorial is based on Sheri Fink's bestselling book about the horrifying events at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center — including the alleged euthanasia of several patients by Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) and two nurses — in the desperate days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. With their Apple TV+ adaptation of Five Days at MemorialJohn Ridley and Carlton Cuse present an agonizing, brutally vivid retelling of a natural disaster that begat a national disgrace — one where there was so much blame to go around, it never actually settled anywhere.

On the night of Aug. 29, 2005, staff, patients, and residents needing shelter locked down in Memorial Medical Center as Hurricane Katrina began its destructive march through New Orleans. What happened next is all in the public record (and in Fink's meticulously reported book), but the key facts are these: Conditions deteriorated into unimaginable hardship. Evacuations were slow and laborious — staff members had to carry each patient up endless flights of stairs and on the hospital's rooftop helipad — and absent official guidance, Memorial's incident commander Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones) and her team had to decide who to save first. When rescue finally arrived and the doctors were given mere hours to evacuate all their patients or risk being left behind, some — including, it seems, Pou, Mulderick, and Dr. Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) — felt "do no harm" was simply no longer an option.

Was it murder, mercy, or something in the murky middle? Yes. Five Days does not purport to have a more definitive answer. The catastrophe at Memorial did not lead to a federally mandated protocol for hospital disaster preparedness; Anna Pou is still a practicing doctor. The best true-life TV series (see: Dopesick, the first two seasons of American Crime Story) help us understand the mistakes of the past in a new way — but if our own government isn't clear on how to prevent another Memorial, it's probably unfair to expect a TV show to come armed with bold new solutions.

Five Days at Memorial is a high-quality, extremely grim retelling of a low point in American history. This is not a series that anyone is going to enjoy watching, but it's a show that absolutely should be watched — if only because in the 17 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, our planet's climate crisis has just gotten worse. B+Kristen Baldwin

(Read our full review here.)

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