(WKRG) — Film critic Scott Phillips reviews two action thrillers — ‘Bullet Train’ and ‘Prey’ — ahead of their release.

Film releasing strategies seem to get more and more complicated with each passing day. Streaming services want to get a digital leg up on the competition by cutting deals directly with production companies for exclusive rights to a film after it plays in theaters — or instead of playing in theaters. Films that are part of an existing IP (intellectual property) — Marvel, Star Wars, DC, Toy Story, Minions, etc. — have one goal: making big bucks at the box office. For the biggest of the big, going straight to streaming would be seen as a huge failure. Tom Cruise wisely bucked Paramount Pictures for the entirety of the pandemic by refusing to allow Top Gun: Maverick to go straight to streaming. We know who was right in that debate. It’s the biggest hit of his entire career, raking in over a billion dollars worldwide. 

This coming weekend is a perfect example of differing release strategies for a pair of big action films. One of them (Bullet Train) is hitting the biggest of screens, debuting in IMAX theaters across the globe, although it is not based on established IP. Then it will head straight to Netflix sometime later this year, bypassing the usual VOD (Video on Demand) market. The other film (Prey) is the latest installment in the long-running Predator film franchise, an established (though not always bankable) IP that began in the 1980’s, and it’s skipping theaters to head straight to Hulu. Confused yet? Don’t feel bad. Most movie execs can’t explain their industry these days. It feels like an expensive hit-or-miss, live-and-learn approach to marketing. 
Both production companies think the paths to audiences they’ve chosen are the best for getting their projects in front of your eyeballs. Bullet Train hits screens on August 4, and Prey hits Hulu on August 5, so it’s almost time for you to vote with your box office dollars or streaming logins and shape the future of the film business. Maybe my thoughts on these two releases will help you make your choice or convince you to see them both. 

If you need the cinematic recipe for making Bullet Train, the new action spectacular starring Brad Pitt, it would read something like this: Take a cup of the frenetic martial arts action of John Wick, add a dash of Guy Ritchie’s flashy film editing (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch), throw in a pinch of Quentin Tarantino-style character monologues and fold in the vibrant primary colors of Speed Racer (the Wachowski film and the original anime series), bake and let stand for a little over two hours (without end credits). 

In the opening scenes of the film, a batch of eccentric hitmen and underworld types find themselves boarding a bullet train in Japan. Each has his or her own reason for being on board. They don’t seem to be aware that their fellow assassins are riding on the train. They know one another by reputation, but don’t necessarily recognize each other one sight. Is this assembly of gangsters a coincidence? Or is it due to some grand design? Time will tell. 

Brad Pitt plays an operative codenamed Ladybug. It’s clear that he’s killed in the past, but he finds himself in the midst of an existential crisis as he boards the train. When one of his fellow guns for hire refers to him as “an assassin”, he responds, “I’m more of a snatch and grab kind of guy.” And that is the mission at hand: retrieve an important briefcase and get off the train at his first opportunity. As all these representatives of global crime organizations converge, that is easier said than done. 

The cast is top-notch. It’s fun to see Pitt playing somewhat against type with all his moments of self-doubt and angst over being pressed into fighting and killing instead of “talking it out”. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson give Pitt a run for his money as a pair of hapless assassins who repeatedly bungle their mission through sheer coincidence and bad luck. They give the film a lot of its dark humor. There are also a couple of laugh-out-loud cameos that I won’t spoil here (consider them the final spices in the recipe). 

If you’re in the mood for a big, bombastic action film with over-the-top gore that eventually reaches cartoonish levels (think Kill Bill 1 and 2), then Bullet Train is the film for you. There’s hand-to-hand combat, stabbings, shootings, death by snake venom and all other manner of murder and mayhem. If your idea of a good espionage or spy thriller is more akin to the quiet, cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of John Le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), you may want to look elsewhere. 

Where Bullet Train is an expertly assembled mash-up of ideas that you’ve seen before, Prey takes a tired franchise and injects new life into it. It’s not the first time that writer-director Dan Trachtenberg has taken a film franchise in a radically new direction. He was the creative force behind 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), and he brings that same sense of tension and dread to this latest installment in the Predator series. 
The elevator pitch for Prey is brilliantly simple: Why don’t we take a series known for being futuristic sci-fi and go back in time? The film takes place 300 years before the first film in the series during the days that the Comanche Nation dominated the American West. One of the earliest predators meets one of the earliest civilizations in North America. The concept also levels the playing field between the combatants and makes the action more compelling as a result. Gone are the predator’s impenetrable body armor and laser-firing weaponry because the predator himself is less evolved than he was in the original 1987 film. 

In this latest iteration, we find the predator hunting everything from wild animals to Comanche warriors to French fur trappers roaming the countryside. The fight choreography is expertly staged and shot. No blurry camera pans and choppy editing that leaves you wondering what just happened. It’s top-notch, theater-quality action piped into your living room. It’s bloody, visceral R-rated violence, but that’s in keeping with the Predator brand. 

The Native American cast is excellent. For folks who are averse to subtitles, the film does have a version that is predominately in English though Native American dialects are used along the way. Amber Midthunder strikes a blow for female action heroes and Native American actors alike. It wasn’t that many years ago that Native American characters were played by white actors (think Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man) or by Latin-X performers (think Edward James Olmos in Wolfen). With Prey and the recent AMC series Dark Winds, it’s nice to see Native American stories portrayed by Native American casts. 
I enjoyed Prey to the point that I’m ready for the historical sequels that could follow. The predator hunts Nazis during World War II. The predator pops by to fight in the Civil War. The predator versus Al Capone and the Chicago mob. Okay, I’m no screenwriter, but you get the idea. If you’re a fan of the franchise, don’t miss this one.