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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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.