Hurts So Good: Getting A Kick Out Of A Movie Punch
My favorite parts of Non-Stop, in which Liam Neeson adds airplane bathrooms to the list of things out of which he has beaten the snot, are the silliest parts. The slow-motion parts. The gravity-defying parts. The parts where everybody in the audience cracks up, but not unkindly.
I didn't particularly expect to like Non-Stop in any way other than the ironically detached manner in which I have (probably unfairly) attended almost every action thriller since Die Hard, to which I compare everything in the style one does with a first love, which makes it very difficult for anything to measure up, also in the style of a first love.
I am only there, in many cases, to see how ridiculous the athletic feats become, how absurd the interpretation of the laws of physics grows, and how corny the one-liners get before everyone learns a lesson about hanging with your buddies at the end. And as such, I manage to genuinely enjoy a lot of them, like Fast & Furious 6, which was a perfectly good evening's utterly frivolous entertainment, to be honest.
I'm a little all over the place when it comes to Neeson; I found The Grey far too grim and depressing to be enjoyed as the wolf-fighting spectacle I was looking for, and I couldn't stand Unknown, the last film Neeson made with Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra. That movie was so boring and labored and utterly pointless that at the end of it, not only had the bejeezus been bored out of me, but my bejeezus had traveled many miles and looked unlikely to ever return.
With these kinds of movies, the thing is, I'm picky about tone. I usually find them either a little too dumb, a little too slick, or a little too nihilistic. Watching Olympus Has Fallen, for instance, it was impossible for me to imagine the conversations that led to the decision to simply mow down, blow up, or otherwise dispose of a couple hundred innocent people before the movie even got started, just to prove how bad the bad guys really were. Too much violence renders itself meaningless, until whether you become conscious of the artifice or you don't, it's a miserable experience, and it seems like the good guy is trying, at best, to keep from being beaten even more soundly by the bad guy.
I would much rather see one very claustrophobic fistfight in that tiny bathroom than see 200 anonymous extras yell "UUUUUGGGHHH!" while being riddled with bullets or blown to bits. And Non-Stop, because it narrows the action to the inside of the plane for the vast majority of the screen time, gives me those close-up, fist-on-face fights that I admit I still find somewhat fun to watch, in part because people aren't diving and rolling and jumping so much that I lose all sense that they are in a real physical space. (Also because at times, it seems like they're thrashing the bathroom itself, and who doesn't hate an airplane bathroom? It deserves it! Punch harder!)
The sketchy outline of the movie is found in the trailers: Neeson plays a down-on-his-luck air marshal who is on duty on a flight that's making its way over the Atlantic and trapped far from any airport when someone starts threatening via text message to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes. It's sort of a combination of Die Hard and a locked-room mystery, and it passed one very important test: If I'd been interrupted before the end, I'd have wanted to make sure I saw the rest absolutely as soon as possible, and I wouldn't have hated myself for it. Maybe it was Julianne Moore as his seatmate, maybe it was Michelle "Lady Mary" Dockery as a flight attendant or Lupita "Please Don't Tell Me This Is Better For Her Career Than Her Oscar Nomination" Nyong'o as another flight attendant, or Corey "Good In Many Silly Things Before This, So Bring It On" Stoll as a glowering bald dude who, like everyone else, may or may not be up to no good. But darn it, I cared what happened. I cared what happened.
There's a kind of weird, bent wit even in a very tense movie like this, because they know perfectly well that they're making the situation sillier and sillier. There's one shot in particular, capitalizing on the relationship between an airplane and gravity, that is there, absolutely no question, for the audience to cheer and laugh at, because it is really awesome, and it is really ridiculous, and it looks great.
There is a tiny piece inside many of us that wants nothing more in the world than to scream, "WOOOOOO!", and because I do not believe in being noisy in theaters and disturbing others, I keep that piece of myself subdued. But yes, as that gravitational absurdity floated (let's say) onto my screen, that tiny part of me threw its tiny fists in the air, pumped them like it did not care (because it doesn't, really), screamed "WOOOOOO!", bought itself a brewski (which it called a "brewski," because that seems like the kind of thing it would do), and when it had consumed that brewski, crushed the can on its forehead.
It felt good. Not guilty-good, even. Just good. Fun. Satisfying. A-plus; would cheer idiotically again.
There are several genuinely clever — not groundbreaking, but clever and satisfying — turns in the story, and while it's absolutely true that it builds to an ending both silly and tacky, expecting Non-Stop to end in substance is like expecting a cello concerto to end with a drum solo: there is a time and a place for the one thing, and the other thing, but probably not together.
Some will speak negatively or at least exasperatedly of the fact that this movie is PG-13 rather than R, and therefore far less blood-soaked than others of its general kind. To me, though, it was fun to see what else was up the sleeves of a little group of screenwriters besides the hail of gunfire. I am like Alan Ruck's unhappy tourist in Speed at this point when it comes to another trip around the endless loop of Shooting The Crap Out Of Everything: to paraphrase and mangle his best line, I already seen the airport.
Sometimes, PG-13 violence is achieved with camera manipulation, by moving around so fast and showing so little and obscuring so much that you don't see all that much blood, even though the same quantity of carnage is being shown. (See The Hunger Games.) That, indeed, can feel false and precious, like a cheat. But this doesn't. This feels like maybe some folks who wanted the PG-13 for business reasons actually put a little thought into what an action picture looks like if you refrain from dousing it in splooshes of errant innard juice.
I can't defend the ending. Or, really, the mystery's solution. But you usually can't. This is usually the kind of movie that's there to be fun, to make you feel temporarily diverted (CAUTION: FLIGHT PUN), and in some cases, to remind you that blood is not necessary to create stakes.
It's a strange feeling liking a movie like this, because I'm not sure I would make a case for it as, technically speaking, "good." It makes me feel like I'm Bill-Clinton-ing the word "good," as if I'm suddenly unsure of exactly what I mean when I use it. But surely, the close match between intent and result counts for something.
At least, it does to those tiny "woo"-ing fists.