The final entry in the Shooting Gallery’s fall festival of independent films (see movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is the weakest of the lot, an awkward, affected action-comedy parable about machismo posturing and liberation from the straightjacketing that stereotyping leads to. There are occasional flashes of good humor and even glimmers of insight to be found in the debut feature by Hiroyuki Tanaka, an actor who’s rechristened himself Sabu as a writer-director, but overall “Non-Stop” feels like an experiment that doesn’t quite come off.
The picture opens on Yasuda (Tomoro Taguchi), a hapless nerd who’s a failure both at work and in romance. He decides to rob a bank, an exercise that naturally turns into a disaster. Arriving at the target, he finds that he’s forgotten his mask, and so goes into a nearby store to shoplift one. But he’s confronted by Aizawa (Daimond Yukai), a clerk who (we later find out) is high on drugs; Yasuda proceeds to wing Aizawa with a bullet, and the latter takes off after his assailant. As they run through the Tokyo streets, they collide with Takeda (Tsuysumi Shinichi), a yakuza downcast because he’s failed to prevent the assassination of his gang’s master; in addition, he’s the fellow who provided the gun to Yasuda, and Aizawa is deeply in debt to him over his habit. Takeda immediately takes off after both of them, and for the better part of a day and night they run through the Tokyo byways, recollecting from time to time in flashback on what’s brought them to this point and sporadically reacting in different ways to the people they encounter along the way.
But that’s not all: we occasionally cut away to members of the two gangs (including Takeda’s) who are taking up arms against one another, and to a group of cops (one of whom has lost his gun, which just happens to be the firearm sold by Takeda to Yasuda) aiming to deal with the threat of violence. The police and gangsters are portrayed in Keystone Kop terms, exaggerated versions of the types encountered so often in serious genre flicks. It goes without saying that everybody collides in the end, in a sequence which allows for a send-up of the sort of standoff one expects in more extreme Hong Kong actioners.
Obviously none of this is meant to be taken seriously: “Non-Stop” is based on a series of ludicrously contrived coincidences involving characters who are types rather than realistic figures. Rather the picture aims to be an almost puzzle-like parodic examination of the roles people select for themselves (usually on the basis of societal expectations) and the self-images they construct on the basis of those roles. Somehow the liberating chase at last frees the runners from the confines of their self-imposed roles and offers them at least a shred of hope for release. But the metaphor is hardly a novel one, and it’s weakened by the fact that none of the main characters strikes the viewer as particularly sympathetic, or even very interesting; and the take-off on the worlds they inhabit is, from the satirical perspective, pretty crude.
The movie suffers from the timing of its release, too. It was actually made shot in 1996, but the delay in bringing it to America makes it look like a kind of male variant of “Run Lola Run.” That’s unfair, of course, since Tom Tykwer’s arthouse hit was actually made two years later, but comparisons will inevitably be drawn nonetheless, all to the disadvantage of “Non-Stop.” Tykwer’s picture has far greater energy and cinematic elan than Tanaka’s; its characters are less cartoonish, even considering the director’s neon style; and its philosophical underpinnings, though hardly very profound, seem to possess more heft. And the mere fact that we’re dealing here with three runners rather than merely one doesn’t make any difference: the success of a picture is never determined by such purely mathematical considerations–would “Charlie’s Angels” be better if there were nine of them?
That’s not to say that “Non-Stop” doesn’t have periodic moments of genuine wit. Yasuda’s imagining what he’d look like wearing a child’s gauze mask during his robbery is almost surrealistic, and the existential conversation Takeda has with a fellow yakuza before their boss’ murder has a certain weird charm. But mostly the picture seems to be trying too hard and not quite hitting the target.