Since 2009’s surprise hit “Taken,” Liam Neeson, an actor formerly known for his serious performances in things like “Schindler’s List” and “Michael Collins,” has taken up residence as a go-to action icon. In the last few years he’s been “Taken” twice (with a third installment on the way), battled a nasty nest of aquatic aliens in “Battleship,” and been mercilessly hunted by a pack of wild wolves in the admirably grim “The Grey.” With his massive frame and his gravelly voice that sounds like he’s continually just finished off several dozen cigarettes, he’s the rare action star who actually seems like he could handle the preposterous situations he’s dealt. And in his latest thriller, “Non-Stop,” that situation is pretty preposterous indeed: this time the star is cast as an alcoholic air marshal accused of hijacking a transatlantic flight. Thankfully, no wolves are on the plane.
When “Non-Stop” starts, Neeson’s Bill Marks is a mess: he’s chugging from some flask right before getting on the plane, and once he’s on board, he gruffly interacts with the comely passenger sitting beside him (Julianne Moore, in a largely thankless role) before sneaking away to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. For a little while it’s an interesting character study of a man who starts a very long flight completely broken and tries to hold himself together long enough for the plane to land. Of course, that’s not what the movie is about, and while these character moments are interesting and sufficiently textured, the aspects of the movie’s plot start to creep into the narrative almost immediately.
For one, Marks starts getting text messages over a secure air marshal line that begin somewhat teasingly, but soon turn menacing, with whoever is on the other end of the phone threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until an obscene amount of money is deposited into an account of their choosing. Of course, as these things tend to go, the initial threat isn’t the only one — soon enough, he has to deal with a dirty marshal, figure out who on the plane is blackmailing him, as well as the bodies starting to steadily pile up. The movie has some decent twists, in very basic, paperback novel terms, and to elaborate anymore about the plot would be to rob the film of its primary thrills. It is safe to say at some point, Marks goes from being the one trying to solve the mystery to the one being accused, by just about everyone on the flight, of hijacking the plane, which makes things considerably more difficult.
One of the things that keeps “Non-Stop” airborne is the excellence of its supporting cast, full of crackerjack character actors, who manage to enliven some occasionally pedestrian scenarios with, if not realism, then a certain brand of heightened energy. Actors like Nate Parker, Corey Stoll (so great on the first season of “House of Cards“), Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy and Lupita Nyong’o (currently an Oscar nominee for “12 Years a Slave” but here barely uttering an entire sentence of dialogue), give the movie some much-needed color and punch, each of them making a perfect potential victim (or villain). If you’re engaged with the creaky plot mechanics, with dusty whodunit tropes wheeled out like luggage on the baggage claim conveyer belt, it’s because of these actors, each of whom seems to be channeling a different seventies disaster movie for their performance.
Neeson, for his part, continues that semi-frazzled, righteously indignant attitude that he first brought to “Taken” and has honed, to perfection, in the subsequent movies. Interestingly, the filmmakers have chosen to take away his family completely, which leaves the statuesque actor to bond with a young girl who is flying alone on the plane. It’s not exactly subtle, but the way that he connects with this young girl, serves as an admirable attempt to get you care about the character, even when it appears that he is a true scumbag. It’s a testament to Neeson’s talent and professionalism that a performance that he clearly could have accomplished in his sleep, never comes across as perfunctory or stilted, even when the movie diverts into territory so outrageous that it would be hard for anyone to keep a straight face.
But if there’s someone who should be commended for keeping this aircraft from plummeting into the icy sea, then it’s Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has formed a steadfast bond with Neeson based on their shared experience on 2011’s “Unknown” (they’ve already finished filming another movie together, “Run All Night“). Collet-Serra showed his talent early on in his career, slipping thrills into the potentially workmanlike “House of Wax” remake and crafting a genuinely spooky horror movie in the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced chiller “Orphan.” With “Unknown,” he took Neeson into loopier, weirder and more perverse territory.
Here, Collet-Serra seems keenly aware of the type of movie he’s making, and does his best to make it as visually stimulating and uncluttered: when Neeson goes from first class into coach and braids back to the cabin, you are always acutely aware where he is and what his relation is to the other characters. In the era of shaky cam and action sequences that are endlessly chopped into indistinguishable visual confetti, this can’t be overstated enough. There’s one particularly bracing sequence that follows Neeson through the whole plane, before exiting one of the windows, tracking down the outside of the plane, before going back into the plane through another window. Collet-Serra is the real deal: an action filmmaker whose stylization never gets in the way of his storytelling abilities.
The movie does hit some turbulence towards the third act, and the ending is problematic at best. Most of this has to do with the script, which unfortunately shoehorns in some icky connections to 9/11 and betrays the philosophical bent that made the first “Die Hard” such a smashing success (talking about what this betrayal is, however, would give away a central plot point, so we’ll table this for now). The fact that there are three credited writers on “Non-Stop” (John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle), probably means that there was an economy class-worthy of screenwriters who worked on it but weren’t credited, and sometimes the seams show. “Non-Stop” isn’t exactly a smooth ride, but as far it being the big screen equivalent of an airplane novel, one that you read on the flight and throw away when you get to your destination, it is wildly successful. Just don’t think too hard about it. [B]