My guy and I wanted to see the latest Liam Neeson thriller, Non-Stop. He and I, movie junkies on a routine fix, agreed that any Liam Neeson movie that involved planes and suspense would grant us momentary reprise from the possibility of any action movie withdrawals. It helped that we’re both children of the eighties, the decade in which terrorist paranoia was merging into our pop cultural psyche. Terrorism was the villainy in the action movie of the week. The terrorists were often portrayed as neo-industrialist-cool, usually Eastern European or Russian, reflecting our subconscious fears that they were going to take over the world with their Armani suits, flashy Lamborghinis, and padded bodyguards. These days, the movie terrorists have only changed in ethnicity. They’re still ultra-wealthy industrialists who wear expensive silk ties and bark subtitled orders to hired guns. They also still want world domination. Thanks in no part to our post-9/11 fears, the movie terrorist has his beady eyes on commercial plane takedowns. The more ordinary Americans the movie terrorist can keep as hostages, held under threat of devastating crash or defcon-4 level explosions, the more value he can add to his evil repertoire that will have us root even more so for the protagonist. Those victims of such Hollywood-derivative, unfortunate circumstances in the plane actioner fall into one of three broad categories: the Heroic, the Innocents, and the Foolhardy.
The Heroic aboard the plane are often led by the male protagonist of the film. The protagonist is a broken man who routinely flies. He probably even hates to fly, so much so he has an addiction problem be it pill-popping, alcohol-swigging, or cuticle-gnawing. He must be, or have been, employed as a law enforcement official such as an air marshal, police officer, FBI agent or CIA operative. If he’s no longer an official, he’s probably working with a private security firm, making decent money to keep his estranged teenaged daughter in college and a bitchy ex-wife on ample spousal support. Either that, or he’s so tormented, he has no sense of purpose anymore, so he is, sadly, unemployed.
The protagonist has a couple of Heroic cohorts onboard this doomed flight. One of the most notable sidekicks for the protagonist is the attractive, sharp-tongued, female flight attendant or window seat buddy. She is also emotionally suffering, having gone through a nasty break-up, so she will attempt to offer the silent, world weary protagonist first class drinks in economy seating and flirtatious one-liners in hopes her loneliness will change for the better. Her fellow flight attendants or newfound passenger buddies, all requisite gal pals with guaranteed tragic endings, warn her of pending further heartache should she get involved with A Guy Like That. She’s a kind woman as well, and she often finds herself in the role of surrogate mother or granddaughter to one or more of her fellow passengers, comforting them when trouble ensues. Once in a while, she may even be forced into landing the plane.
There are Heroic alternatives to our protagonist’s female counterpart. However, since they’re, essentially, the pilots of the plane, their fate is quite often sealed in the plane actioner. The pilot and his co-pilot will be forced to lock themselves in the cockpit, barring themselves from the danger happening in the main cabin of the plane. Their mission is simple: safely land the plane, preferably on solid ground. Unfortunately, both of them will be killed so that the tension escalates, and the odds grow worse for the passengers.
The Innocents aboard this dangerous flight are as typical as only Hollywood screenwriters and casting agents could create. There’s a fast-talking, tech-savvy type who will have recorded everything happening during the flight and will probably send the video on to the press, someway, somehow. There’s a sweet elderly couple who may have seen more than they realize. Their sage advice might even offer our protagonist the needed bit of information he could use to apprehend the terrorists. There’s also a cute kid who may be sitting in front of our protagonist, making faces at him from the crack between the seats. Their adorable exchange will remind the protagonist of potential futures, everything he has to live for, and all of the other clichés involving the human experience. Later though, the child will be snatched from his hiding place in a last desperate move by the villain. That moment will be the protagonist’s key scene of redemption in his personal journey back to the normalcy of society.
Unlike the Heroic and the Innocents who manage to elicit sympathies from the audience, the Foolhardy, the stooges, either exist for comic relief or for pure exasperation due to their stupidity and/or plain, old arrogance. Every plane actioner, for instance, has a California blond, amorous couple who think they’re being slick sneaking into the bathroom together in an idiotic, awkward attempt to join the notorious Mile High Club. Wayward bullets or a few poisonous snakes will quickly dispatch them. There’s also a mouthy, macho bastard in an aisle seat, whose masculinity may be threatened by the presence of our much more experienced protagonist. The macho meathead will try to take charge when the protagonist falters but will later attempt to redeem himself by siding with the Heroic when he realizes he’s much too cowardly to face the terrorists on his own.
Inevitably, the protagonist of the plane actioner will take down the terrorists and engage the leader in a brutal, climactic fight while the plane goes down. As Hollywood endings dictate, good must prevail. Thus, the protagonist, with the help from his fellow passengers – Heroic, Innocent, and even a few Foolhardy – will save the flight, miraculously preventing it from crashing into a Los Angeles skyscraper in the nick of time. All of which is certainly fine by my fella and me, as long as we finish the entire tub of $20 popcorn before the movie ends. Only then will we be truly satisfied with the whole experience, plane takedowns, Liam Neeson, and all.