At first glance, the new Japanese import Non-Stop seems to be a crude knockoff of German director Tom Tykwer's wonderful Run Lola Run, but Non-Stop was released in Japan (under the title Dangan Runner) in 1996, two years before Lola was shot. Could Tykwer have seen the film at a festival and found his inspiration there? The similarities, in any case, are all of plot and structure, not style. While Non-Stop writer-director Sabu (real name: Hiroyuki Tanaka) makes use of a pretty full bag of tricks, he doesn't attempt the sort of hyperkinetic, MTV cutting and sound design that powered Tykwer's movie.
In the opening sequence, we meet Yasuda (pop star Tomoro Taguchi, probably best known in the United States as the star of Tetsuo -- The Iron Man), who is casing a bank in hopes of pulling off a robbery. In flashback, we discover that he is a total sad sack -- a low-level restaurant employee who is the object of abuse from both his co-workers and the woman he foolishly thinks of as his girlfriend. (In an American remake, he'd be played by Mark Wahlberg.)
Well, he's gonna show them! With meticulous planning and an illegally obtained gun, he finally sets out one day to rob the bank. Of course, this poor guy doesn't have a chance: Just as he's about to enter the establishment, he realizes that he's forgotten his mask. Working on a tight deadline, he doesn't have time to go back to the car, so he ducks into a convenience store. Unfortunately, he's also forgotten to bring any money, so he has to shoplift the mask. The clerk, a stoned-out junkie named Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), spots him and tries to stop him; in the scuffle, Yasuda drops his gun. When he runs off, Aizawa picks up the gun and runs after him.
This is all in the first 10 minutes or so: The chase, thus established, continues into the night and for the rest of the movie. Along the way, they pick up a third character: Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a cowardly yakuza who -- we eventually learn through flashbacks -- has had prior dealings with both of the others.
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Sabu intercuts endless footage of the three of them running with a series of flashbacks and fantasies, as well as scenes of the preparations for an upcoming confrontation between Takeda's gang, a rival yakuza group, and the cops.
The structure -- the surreal attenuation of the chase -- is used as a metaphor for the characters' lives. All three are inept boobs -- incompetent at their jobs, unable to sustain even a brief romance, and lost in various macho fantasies of a never-to-happen future where they act like real men. They are, in essence, running endlessly, for reasons they can no longer remember, and getting nowhere. "The important thing," Takeda thinks, adapting a lesson from the boss he has let down, "is how we live, how we die, how we run."
For what it's worth, they do eventually get somewhere, though the running has now become its own reward: They have long since lost track of how it started.
Sabu wisely keeps his film short -- something under 80 minutes if you don't count the credits -- and crisp. He seems to have started with a good idea, but without much inspiration as to the details. That is, by its nature, Non-Stop has to rely heavily on its flashbacks and fantasy sequences. (Just how long can we watch these guys running?) And he hasn't been able to come up with very interesting material to occupy those scenes, most of which are parodies of tough-guy behavior from yakuza movies. The whole affair may be diverting, but it doesn't add up to much more than a trifle that might have been more impressive as a short.