I used to look for Asian faces in everything I saw. I remember the ones who mattered, the ones who didn’t make me emasculated or embarrassed.
There was Harold in Harold & Kumar, Hiro in Heroes, Trini and Adam in Power Rangers, and Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat. The way Princess Kitana looked into Liu’s eyes, neither saying a word yet still speaking volumes, is seared into my brain. For better and worse, that shaped how I thought true love is supposed to emerge, as stolen glances at an ancient martial arts tournament.
In another life, I would have felt the same about Bullet Train. With a diverse cast of English-speaking actors, including Hiroyuki Sanada and British-Japanese actor Andrew Koji sharing the screen with Brad Pitt, Bullet Train would have been what Rush Hour is now: Carelessly offensive, oodles of fun, and, most of all, proof Asian men can be cool.
But I’m not watching Bullet Train as a nine-year-old, when I watched Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2 punch Jackie Chan during a brawl because “all y’all look alike.” I’m 30. And Bullet Train isn’t from the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, when notions of who gets to be a Hollywood star, and who doesn’t, were always proven by who you see on the screen.
Bullet Train is far from the most offensive movie I’ve ever seen — if anything, it’s too tame — but it feels worn and tired. In March, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 held its own at the U.S. box office against The Batman. So why does Bullet Train think anime is nothing but cat mascots?
But what’s most dated about the new movie is how much it underestimates and presents its two biggest Asian stars.
Koji, who opens the film as a troubled father who commits a crime to protect his hospitalized son, is hardly featured in either of Bullet Train’s two trailers. Hiroyuki Sanada also has almost no presence in the marketing, getting one line in one trailer. Their absence is not subtle.
Unless you saw the individual character posters, you’d be unlikely to think Bullet Train actually stars any Asian talent. Hollywood supposedly doesn’t cast Asian leads because they aren’t stars, but the truth is, they aren’t stars because Hollywood won’t cast Asian leads. How can audiences get excited about buying tickets to see Asian actors when their existence in a movie is barely acknowledged?
These days, trailers seem to matter less than they once did. Even Marvel unveils them closer to the release of movies than it used to. But promotion and packaging still dictate who matters in Hollywood. It’s not as if Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada aren’t worth advertising. They’re both in demand. Sanada, who began his career in Japan, has appeared in everything from The Wolverine to Avengers: Endgame to Westworld. He’s slated to appear in John Wick 4 and a new FX adaptation of Shōgun.
Koji, whose stardom is rising, is currently the face of HBO Max’s Warrior. He co-starred with Henry Golding in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, while his next two movies, Seneca - On the Creation of Earthquakes and Boy Kills World, will see Koji working with John Malkovich and Bill Skarsgård. That’s not a resume to dismiss.
In another life, I would have looked at Koji and Sanada in Bullet Train with awe and attachment. No, I’m not yakuza. Nor am I a warrior fighting Shang Tsung, or a time traveler, or a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger (despite my childhood wishes). I am, however, a guy from New Jersey who’s hunted for cheeseburgers after smoking a doob, so maybe Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is the most authentic representation I could ever ask for. But that’s the beauty of movies: We’re allowed to see ourselves as more than what we are.
Bullet Train could have cemented Sanada and Koji as must-see, must-cast talent. After this weekend, that’s still possible; Bullet Train is on track to win a Marvel-free box office. But how many ticket holders walking into Bullet Train know Koji and Sanada are in it, let alone who they are except “that guy in Endgame”?
Despite my issues with Bullet Train, I felt an indescribable relief when it dawned on me that its token Asian stars aren’t relegated to bit parts. They’re actual characters whose actions and livelihoods matter to the action that unfolds. I just wish I knew that going in.
Bullet Train is now playing in theaters.