Disaster on the Tracks: Bullet Train (1975) + The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

December 30, 2016 | By

What happens when it’s Christmas? Well, in my case I eat a ridiculous amount of German holiday treats, pig out on carbs, and dive into an eclectic mix of movies between a few luncheons and visitations, starting with my Christmas movie, Die Hard (1988).

The first result from my holiday binge-watching is this pair of disaster films set on the rails. The disaster genre is a personal favourite.  It’s action-packed, ridiculous, and perhaps, as when many of the key films were originally released, they offer a peculiar type of ephemeral comfort from watching preposterous acts of heroism and defeating madmen when reality contained political uncertainty, and certainly in 2016, the pool of famous figures dropping dead keeps on churning.

There are plenty of homages and tributes scattered online, but suffice it to say 2017 better start with some hope, an act of great humanity, and fears of worst case scenarios tempered by moderate behaviour. Let’s leave it at that and move on to reviews and related pieces, because there’s much to publish over the coming days.


‘Panic on the Tokyo Express!’

Bullet Train / Shinkansen daibakuha (1975) was Toei’s foray into the disaster genre by packing a high concept idea with stars, action, and melodrama into an epic running time of  152 mins.

Does it need to be 2.5 hours long? Not really, but then we’d have less moments with star Ken Takakura, a truly amazing talent who, as Twilight Time’s resident film historian Julie Kirgo describes in her essay, could infer so much with silence, and a visage that bore the heavy marks of personal trials.

It’s fair to say without Takakura, Bullet Train would’ve been more pulpy, but as I say in my review, he’s the anchor that keeps the drama grounded and increasingly tragic. The film’s also a unique snapshot of Japan’s bullet train, circa 1975, criss-crossing between cities at speeds close to 200 km per hour. Nothing like seeing big trains in motion, and in this narrative, there’s an awfully familiar hook: unless a ransom is paid, when the speed dips below 80 kilometers, its 1500 passengers will die.


‘Meeting Point: Bridge of Death!’

Paired with Bullet Train is my favourite trashy disaster thriller, George Pan Cosmatos’ The Cassandra Crossing (1976), which is apparently the first feature film to make use of Canada’s Wescam, a camera system designed to flow rather than shake when strapped to a moving helicopter and capture rock-steady aerial footage.

The difference in camera gear between both films is striking: Cassandra’s shots are elegant and fluid; Bullet’s aerial shots of the train jerky and schizophrenic, taking away from the docu-drama style crafted by director Jun’ya Satô. And yet, both films are distinct entries in the train disaster sub-genre that resides until the dominant disaster moniker, where new technology goes bad, authorities are corrupt or inept, workers are negligent, and fools seeking respect through heroism often die needlessly (but impressively).

Besides big trains, both films share a plot point in which authorities seriously consider letting each train crash, killing many to save millions from deeper carnage. In Bullet, the danger is shrapnel from a high speed explosion; in Cassandra, it’s a virulent bug spreading outside of the train and potentially leaping continents.

Both films also feature A-quality talent, but Cassandra is very much a classic Grand Hotel idiocy that becomes increasingly implausible, ridiculous, and laughable (but in a good way), whereas Bullet has political and social commentary that’s far more affecting. You may not agree with the murderous machinations of losers, but you feel their pain when they’ve lost their livelihoods, wives, kids, middle class fortunes, and feel marginalized by corporate greed.

Twilight Time’s Blu features the first HD release of Bullet Train uncut and with its original Japanese dub track, while Cassandra also makes its Region A land debut on Blu via Timeless Media / Shout Factory, looking far better than all prior DVD editions.

The lack of extras on Cassandra is disappointing, but it’s always been a film no one loved except from a closeted stance. (I have no shame: I love the dopey movie.) It also features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best action scores, with a lush love theme and aggressive dissonance that heighten Cosmatos’ knack for action montages, and gloss over the bullshit publicity in the German poster campaign (see above) that claims a budget of $20 million. Try $3-5 million.

Sometime in the near future I’ll pen a lengthy review of Virus / Fukkatsu no hi (1980), which was also part of a significant wave of Japanese disaster epics. I mention the film briefly in the Bullet Train  review because it too suffered under the knife of editors when it was released internationally.

There’s about 3-4 different cuts of the film, and its plot is like an sketchy epilogue to Cassandra: selected skilled members of society are packed onto an ocean liner and sent to Antarctica, the lone place where a deadly virus can’t reach the last valuable enclave of humanity (including Olivia Hussey, who must always be saved). After a period of calm, a patrolling submarine makes a daring venture to the U.S. to see what’s left of civilization.

It’s a dour, depressing, somewhat politically incorrect sci-fi drama that at $16 million was in 1980 reportedly the most expensive film produced by Japan, and was directed by the great Kinji Fukasaku, of Battle Royale (2000) fame.

Coming next: Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) and Zelig (1983) from Twilight Time.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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