dir. Sabu, Opens Fri Nov 10 at the Uptown.

Non-Stop. I saw it absolutely cold, no preparation of any kind, and I loved the way it unfolded. If you trust me, stop reading right now and just go see it.


It takes six seconds--seven, tops--into Non-Stop to recognize that you're in the hands of a competent filmmaker. The right lenses, the right montage, the right soundtrack--this guy knows what he's doing. The only thing you can't tell immediately is what kind of movie he's making. Is it a caper movie? The guy onscreen is... what's he doing?

Please, I'm begging you. Just go. You'll enjoy yourself.

Hiroyuki Tanaka, who was born in 1964, started his movie career as an actor, using the name Hiroki Tanaka. After roles in the smash hit Sorobanzuku, and in Warudo apaatoment hora (World Apartment Horror), he assumed the name Sabu as writer and director.... I'm warning you, stop reading.

Okay, I give up. Take three losers--a would-be bank robber, a convenience store clerk with rock 'n' roll aspirations, and an incompetent bodyguard. Connect and reconnect them with each other in a plot that also includes a missing gun, a toy gun, big knives, short swords, either two or three rival gangster groups (I lost track), a car full of cops, and one of those gauze masks that people in Tokyo wear to protect themselves against air pollution. Keep all these elements in play--oh, and by the way, also satirize all the movies that all of these movie characters wish they were in. That's the task that Sabu set for himself when he wrote and directed Non-Stop.

Does he succeed? I saw the movie in a full-sized theater with four or five other hardened, leathery old critics spaced far, far apart from one another. Any idea how hard it is to get a laugh out of people in those circumstances? We were howling. No wonder his fans like to spell his pseudonym with an exclamation point--Sabu!

Film critics may be particularly susceptible to self-referential cinematic humor, but who among us doesn't star in an internal movie that irritatingly refuses to jump out of our heads and become real? Sabu's grasp of cinematic vocabulary is keen. Each of the internal movies has its own look and feel, and we recognize each of them instantly--the raking light of Japanese soft porn, the fuzzy sincerity of the biopic. Of course, the external movie benefits from the same shorthand. We know that Japanese cops travel four to a car, we know that the one with his colored shirt open at the neck is the sloppy maverick, we know that the nerdy one has some special skill or cunning that will soon be revealed. So surprise us. Ah, and he does; he is Sabu.

All tough-guy movies should if possible be shot in Japanese, and then subtitled in the appropriate language. People everywhere lower their voices to appear threatening; in fact, the behavior is generally mammalian rather than specifically human. Japanese, however, is the best of all human languages in which to growl, because normal Japanese sentence intonation ends on a syllable that is both stressed and prolonged--like "mar-i-a-si-naaaaaaaaaay." I don't even know what "mariasinay" means, but at least 20 percent of all Japanese sentences end with it. Next time you want to scare the bejesus out of somebody, try half-screeching, half-roaring "mariasi-nay," and see if they don't back off mighty quick.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the lack of special effects in Non-Stop. Don't get me wrong, I lap up computer-generated FX as eagerly as your average nine-year-old does, but it's refreshing to see how much can still be wrung from the camera alone--the camera and the lighting and the editing, that is. This movie consists mostly of three guys running, and yet there's not a boring moment in it. Long lens, macro lens, above, around, away, under, through, toward, alongside--it's a complete cinematography of prepositions.

My delight in the camerawork causes, in fact, my only reservation about Sabu's other three movies, Postman Blues, Unlucky Monkey, and Monday. I try to imagine whether Non-Stop would have been half as good on video. A quarter as good? And yet I'm not at all sure I'm going to be able to refrain from running out and renting them instantly.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who wouldn't mind having an exclamation point herself--Barley!