Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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A loosely based remake of the 1963 Stanley Donen classic Charade? Sure The Truth About Charlie sounds good on paper. In the updated version Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) is a sweet unassuming woman who decides to end her 3-month whirlwind marriage to playboy Charles Lambert (Stephen Dillane). Returning to Paris from vacation she gets to their apartment and finds it empty--except for Paris Police Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson) whose been waiting for Reggie to inform her Charlie has been murdered and question her. Suddenly Reggie's world comes to a screeching halt. First there's American embassy official Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins) who warns her about the danger she is in. Then she's followed by three oddballs-: Il-sang Lee (Joong-Hoon Park) Emil Zadapec (Ted Levine) and Lola Jansco (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who claim Charlie stole about $6 million from them. Her only ally seems to be Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) a seemingly innocent guy she meets on vacation and then in Paris always happens to be there at the right time. Thrust into the middle of the puzzle Reggie has to piece together exactly what happened to her husband where the money is and more importantly who the heck she can trust. The story seems to flow nicely but you simply get bored midway through the film. There's just not enough intrigue to carry it out to fruition.
The 1963 Charade wasn't the best script out there either. It tended to drag but what made the film become an enduring classic was the on-screen pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Together they had enough style and class to enlighten any mediocre script. Unfortunately Newton and Wahlberg pale in comparison--Hepburn and Grant they are not. Without a doubt the camera loves Newton and she's very appealing as the lost Regina trying to get a semblance of her life back. She has a fluidity which keeps your attention. And she could have easily had sparks with any another actor but with Wahlberg it's a complete wash. Writer/director Jonathan Demme makes the character Peters more of a Boy Scout rather than a suave sophisticate. Yes Wahlberg can do a role like this with his eyes closed but the part also requires that certain je ne sais quoi--and he just doesn't have it. The actor actually weighs the film down whenever he is on the screen. The supporting cast almost makes up for it especially Levine (The Silence of the Lambs) Joong-Hoon and Hamilton (Beloved) as the strange trio after the pot of gold. Robbins has a fairly nondescript part throughout most of the film but manages to make it solid when it counts.
Jonathan Demme definitely has a quirky sensibility that makes his films very entertaining to watch. He has been out of the limelight since his 1998 Beloved which was a much more classically structured film as was his Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs. But I remember his off-the-wall beginnings with Something Wild and Married to the Mob and am very happy to see Demme's unique style return in Charlie. To be honest it's what the saves the film from being a total yawner. He simply adores his surroundings shooting Paris much like New Wave directors of the '60s and '70s such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and you can tell Demme is inspired by them. There are strange ethereal characters popping up in Reggie's view--a widow dressed in black by a bridge a saggy-faced woman at the market--which keeps the action off-kilter. Unlike the romantic Paris of Charade Demme goes into the seedier side of the city while still capturing its charm. The director also incorporates some of France's cinematic and cultural royalty including actress Anna Karina who made several films with Godard and Charles Aznavour a international singer/composer. The quirks definitely work.