By Preston Wilder
Film critics – and film buffs in general – like to fawn over action directors. This is a remnant of so-called auteurism, born in the 50s and 60s when a group of (mostly French) critics set out to champion the men behind popular Hollywood entertainments – men like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock – re-branding them as artists who smuggled their personal vision into Westerns and thrillers.
Claiming to find hidden merit in vulgar B-movies is a win-win gambit for a film critic; you get to seem smarter and more perceptive than the average joe, but you also avoid looking stuffy or highbrow (perish the thought) since, after all, you’re watching vulgar B-movies. At the moment, many are fawning over Paul W.S. Anderson, the man behind the Resident Evil franchise, praising his artistry and extolling even obvious missteps like the recent Pompeii. I suspect they’d do better to find another pet – like for instance Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish-born director whose resumé currently numbers five films and three-and-a-half artistic triumphs.
The half-triumph is House of Wax, which has memorable details but never quite manages to transcend its tag as ‘the horror movie with Paris Hilton’. The non-triumph is Goal II: Living the Dream, from 2007 – though admittedly I haven’t seen it, and maybe Collet-Serra made it for non-cinematic reasons (he is, after all, from Barcelona). His last three films have been splendid, however – the genuinely chilling Orphan, the smart Hitchcockian thriller Unknown, and now Non-Stop, an action thriller set almost entirely on a passenger plane that’s being menaced by an unknown intruder.
The intruder is one of the passengers, or at least that’s what (s)he claims. Air marshal Liam Neeson, whose job is to deal with security threats while disguised as a passenger, gets a message on his phone: the texter wants $150 million wired to a certain account, and warns that someone will die every 20 minutes until the money is transferred. It sounds like a hoax – but then people start dying on cue, albeit not in the ways you’d expect.
That premise sounds irresistible. The film, it must be said, doesn’t quite do it justice, the script – written by a trio of novices – not too inventive in its plotting (the most inventive part is the villain’s motive, which has already drawn some ire from conservatives in the US). Plausibility is another slight problem, though I wasn’t too bothered; some of the details are puzzling (it’s hard to see how the villain could’ve arranged the first death, or what (s)he would’ve done if it hadn’t occurred), but overall the solution to the puzzle ‘makes sense’. I actually found more holes to pick in the similar Flightplan some years ago.
The real nitpick, if you want to be nitpicky, is that much of the plot is a red herring – but isn’t misdirection, and making much out of little, the eternal m.o. of a B-movie? The MVPs here are Neeson (also the star of Unknown) and of course Collet-Serra, who keeps the film moving fast enough to be fluid yet not so frantically that the manic pace starts to look like a cover-up. He gets some cool shots of the tube-like plane in bluish darkness (it’s a night flight, like the one in Red Eye) and works a lot with close-ups, bolstering the supporting characters. Who’s the mystery killer? Is it the obvious Muslim (and possible Islamist)? The macho New York cop going to his “fairy brother’s” wedding? The yuppie with an irksome sense of entitlement? The weedy guy who claimed to be going to Amsterdam (so what’s he doing on a plane to London?)? The co-pilot exchanging surreptitious glances with a stewardess? Surely not Julianne Moore, who’s sitting next to Liam and comforts him during take-off – but why won’t she say what she does for a living?
There’s no easy way to review Non-Stop. It’s neither deep nor revelatory, and there aren’t many quotable gags either. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t suddenly appear to deliver a rant about snakes on a plane. There’s a flawed, burned-out hero who tries to solve a mystery and finds himself the victim of a set-up (“Everyone on the flight is clean … Everyone except you!”), but not much in the way of bombast or visual razzle-dazzle. I can see why the neo-auteurist critics would rather go to bat for Paul W.S. Anderson. But the film isn’t stupid or cheaply ironic, it moves superbly, it has a half-buried theme – the same theme as Gravity, actually – about accepting the constant possibility of random Death, and it kept me on the edge of my seat. Jaume Collet-Serra’s next project will be Run All Night, once again with Liam Neeson, a crime drama where “an ageing hitman is forced to take on his brutal former boss to protect his estranged son and his family”. I can’t wait.