It was a good week to be Bad Bunny.
The artist otherwise known as Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio kicked things off with the first of three marathon sold-out concerts at the Coliseo José Miguel Agrelot, a.k.a. El Choliseo, in San Juan, broadcast live on Telemundo and live-streamed to 13 public plazas island-wide. The first show broke the attendance record previously set by Metallica.
According to Nielsen, close to 253,000 households in the island saw the broadcast from 10:30 to midnight, placing the station in the number one spot during that period. God knows how many Puerto Ricans living in the United States saw it either through streaming or other means.
Four days after his final concert at the Choliseo, Bad Bunny was walking the red carpet on behalf of the Brad Pitt-starring hyperactive actioner Bullet Train, which opened last Friday, the same day he would open his worldwide World’s Hottest Tour in Orlando, Florida. Needless to say, that concert was sold out as well (attendance, 65,000).
Meanwhile, Bullet Train hit the jackpot opening weekend with an international box office of $65 million.
Of all its cultural expressions, music has, for centuries, been Puerto Rico’s best export, from tenor Antonio Paoli in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to composers like Pedro Flores and Rafael Hernández, vocalists Daniel Santos and Lucecita Benítez, musician and bandleader Tito Puente, Ricky Martin, Calle 13… and yes, Menudo, to name a select few. The list is too long.
But the Bad Bunny phenomenon is unique, one that will have academics, music scholars, historians, and pop music writers busy for years to come. It’s a phenomenon that defies music industry practices—and standards—while keeping it afloat and happy, a phenomenon that involves the latest in digital technology and how one young man from Vega Baja’s countryside and housing projects tapped into that technology, learned how to use it, and began delivering one hit after another without any attachments to industry-imposed deadlines or strategies.
Bad Bunny is a self-made man who keeps dropping tracks left and right on multiple streaming platforms at the speed of light. In 2020 alone, in the middle of a pandemic shutdown, he released three albums. His new one, Un verano sin ti, has been number one on Billboard’s 200 Album Chart for seven weeks. Only Beyonce’s new album could knock him down from that slot in the next week or so.
But it’s more than record-breaking sales. His profane-laden lyrics have rubbed Puerto Rico’s conservatives and puritans the wrong way, not unlike the way the songs of the Nueva Trova, soneros Marvin Santiago, Cano Estremera, and, hell, even heavy metal did those very same groups during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. But while Estremera and Santiago used double entendres in their songs and performances, Bad Bunny is far more direct.
His language is the language of the streets, the language of the island’s public housing projects. It’s the language of the forbidden. But what rubs these conservative voices the most is his unabashed support of the island’s LGBTQ communities, particularly its transgender population.
His ability to mobilize, alongside Ricky Martin and rapper Residente, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans onto the streets of Old San Juan to demand the resignation of then-Governor Ricky Rosselló—after the release of several compromising chats—turned him into Public Enemy No. 1 for the pro-statehood forces. I would argue that the amount of vitriol directed at him surpasses the virulent criticism once aimed at his partner-in-crime, Residente, with whom he collaborated on the hit single “Bellacoso.”
Bad Bunny, like Ricky, may consider himself apolitical but there is no doubt that he knows how to use his music and his performances as a platform to amplify his audience’s anger at the island’s deteriorating socio-economic condition. On his first concert at the Choliseo, he urged his audiences to take care of the island’s beaches, saying they belonged to the people of Puerto Rico. The following Sunday, over 50 people led by the organizations Para La Naturaleza and Conservation Opportunity picked up over 286 pounds of trash from the Ensenada Yegua Beach in the eastern municipality of Fajardo.
In that show and in his final one of the weekend, Bad Bunny railed against the privatization of the island’s electric grid, the daily blackouts—he even wrote a song about it, “El Apagón”—and the landgrab by U.S. private realtors and crypto-fraudsters sponsored by the island’s tax initiatives.
But he is, deep down, a kid who wants to make a name for himself. So, it is not surprising that he would try his hand at a big-budget studio film, even if it meant playing a Mexican sicario out for revenge, in a role that, as short as it is, lets him prove his action film chops as well as his comedic ones. He may have made his acting debut as a member of the Arellano Felix cartel on Season Three of Narcos: Mexico, but I would argue that by choosing to play The Wolf in Bullet Train and, soon, Marvel wrestling superhero El Muerto in the upcoming Sony movie of the same name, Bad Bunny is positioning himself to become the next multi-faceted Puerto Rican superstar alongside Ricky and Jennifer López.
The kid knows what he’s doing career-wise. But does he have what it takes to carry a lead role?
I have yet to catch up with that final season of Narcos: Mexico, but based on his brief, literally impactful, appearance in Bullet Train, Bad Bunny—who, in an interesting move, chose to use his full name for the film, seemingly in a deliberate attempt to keep his film and music personas separate—has the charisma and energy to carry a physically demanding scene. He’s game for anything and everything here, from being choked with a briefcase by Brad Pitt to letting his body be used as some sort of rubber doll à la Weekend at Bernie’s as Pitt manhandles and repositions his character on a train seat after his rather abrupt demise. Benito’s is a very physical performance, a dress rehearsal of sorts for El Muerto.
Now, as far as the movie itself is concerned, it is fairly entertaining, but it soon wears its welcome. Based on Kitano Isaka’s thriller and directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious: Hobbes & Shaw, and Pitt’s former stunt double), the film’s entire action takes place inside the titular train as it travels from Tokyo to Kyoto with half a dozen assassins on board along with an incredibly small number of passengers and crew for such a frequently used mode of transportation in that country. The entire film centers around what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, perfectly described by Edward White in The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock (2021) as a “plot device that acts as a catalyst for the action in the story but immaterial to its substance,” the MacGuffin in Bullet Train’s case being a suitcase full of money that the hapless gun-for-hire, Ladybug (Pitt), has been tasked with retrieving by his handler (Sandra Bullock, whose voice is heard over the multiple phones Ladybug is forced to use throughout the film).
A last-minute replacement, Ladybug refuses to use a gun because he just renounced violence after taking a series of anger management seminars. He is also a magnet for bad luck and, boy oh boy, he runs into the mother of all bad lucks on this trip. He spends the whole film talking about the Zen-like state he is trying to achieve to his handler and to those half-dozen assassins—The Prince (Joey King), a young woman who poses as a naïve schoolgirl (uniform included) but who is as deadly and cunning as the actual snake that escaped from its cage and is slithering loose on the train; Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), two brothers from different mothers escorting the good-for-nothing son of the ruthless Russian gangster and now head Yakuza, White Death; The Father (Andrew Koji), son of once powerful Yakuza The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada, making a grand entrance towards the end of the film), who is on board to confront the person who threw his son of the roof of a building leaving him in a coma; and, finally, The Wolf here to avenge the death by snake poisoning of his wife and the entire wedding party in Mexico—all of whom have no choice but to listen to Ladybug’s Buddhist bantering while trying to kill him. The Wolf was told that Ladybug was responsible for the deaths of his loved ones, even though the true culprit is a poison expert named The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) hiding undercover on the train.
The cast is clearly having a blast playing these over-the-top characters, and so was I, for a good chunk of its running time, especially with Pitt poking fun at his persona and Cohen and Tyree’s remix of Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent’s repartee. But after a while, the film’s smartass tine and structure are too far in debt to Tarantino and Guy Ritchie’s worst smarmy tendencies. And when it comes to hyperbolic violence, Bullet Train doesn’t quite hit those sweet, delirious, kinetic, almost ballet-like levels of the John Wick series (of which Leitch was once a part of).
In fact, The Wolf’s demise is almost a beat-by-beat remix, of Wick’s mano-a-mano with a Serbian killer among the shelves of the New York Public Library in John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum. Frankly, the John Wick films do far more interesting things with its Asian backdrops and characters than Bullet Train with its Japanese ones (mostly CGI’d). The creators of the Wick series respect and even transcend their film’s genre roots and influences—manga, kung-fu films and the hyperviolent films of John Woo and Ringo Lam. Unfortunately, Bullet Train’s creative team only knows how to copy and paste those references.
Featured image: Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Bad Bunny, stars in the 2022 action film ‘Bullet Train’ (Sony Pictures)