The Shinkansen "Bullet Train" of Japan is one of the country's most celebrated transport systems, but what if the unthinkable happened and something went wrong with the network? Safety procedures have been stringent, but the human element is not able to be completely ruled out - that being the deliberate intervention by a saboteur, such as failed businessman Tetsuo Otika (Ken Takakura). He is trying to get a ransom paid - if the authorities do not hand him over a huge amount in cash, a bomb will be set off on one of the trains...
If the seventies were about anything in the major movies, they were about worst case scenarios, and the most visible of those in the first half of the decade at least was the disaster genre. In Hollywood, the notion that this brave new world of high technology could be fatally flawed (literally) was the engine behind many of the biggest hits as the major studios had the money to spend on catastrophes which the outfits lower down the financial scale were rarely able to keep up with. However, Japanese efforts had been inflicting massive destruction on audiences for years, so by the time Bullet Train was released it did seem a little old hat.
Especially as the set up of the train with the bomb on board came across as small fry compared to what Japan had had to put up with over the course of countless fictional armageddons, and it was only the high profile nature of the setting that provided much novelty. It did have a killer concept which was implemented with some variation by a certain action phenomenon called Speed in 1994, that being the explosive device will be detonated if the vehicle its strapped to goes under a particular velocity. In the Keanu Reeves epic, that was fifty miles an hour, here the train goes off the rails if it travels below eighty kilometres an hour.
So the scene should be set for nailbiting tension, or so you would think, but considering this should have been preoccupied with objects and people moving very fast, it didn't half plod. In its original version it stretched out to a ridiculous two and a half hours, and to take it to that length there were a few subplots to contend with, the main one being the fate of Otika and how he was not someone to be feared, more a man to be pitied. In light of his placing so many passengers in peril, you might have had a spot of bother working up much sympathy for him, but the script did its best to portray him as a victim of society.
That cynicism might have come off in other methods, but here it was rather tiresome, especially as every character was drawn from stock and failed to add much of a spark, explosive or otherwise. The drama was doled out between the cops tracking Otika, the control room where the officials sweated it out, and the train itself, led by driver Sonny Chiba who conducted nervous conversations over the phone, but not much of it had the pulse pounding even if you were not sure how it would all work itself out. In the meantime, Otika's henchmen were disposed of as the net tightened around him, and this, rather than the locomotive business, offered most of the action, with car chases and so on. The main drawback was a distinct lack of personailty to the whole affair, which was a pity with that fine idea for the jumping off point for possible tension, and while effects, stunts and models were good, this was the best you could say about it.