Film Review: Non-Stop

Taut, tense and riveting, Liam Neeson's latest action vehicle is not just another Liam Neeson action vehicle.

Liam Neeson hasn’t really cornered the market on aging action heroes (see: Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill). But with a good half-dozen such genre efforts since 2009’s Taken proving he is indeed an ace at action, he’s clearly getting first look at the scripts. He probably should have said no to some; they haven’t all been as effective as Taken (see: Taken 2). But sometimes, they have. And with the generically titled Non-Stop, Neeson has bagged another keeper.

Non-Stop is anything but generic. Although far from the first nail-biter set on a jetliner in midair (see: everything from Airport to Air Force One to Snakes on a Plane), it manages to avoid at least most of the clichés, while delivering conflict and peril that consistently feel fresh and clever. Is it completely plausible? Um, no. But as Alfred Hitchcock famously observed, all you need to do is move things along quickly enough and the audience will stay with you, disbelief suspended. And Non-Stop does keep things moving along, nimbly skipping over the coincidences and improbabilities with every deft turn of the plot.

As most everyone must know by now, this is the one about the federal air marshal (Neeson) who, somewhere over the Atlantic, receives an anonymous text message informing him that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes if $150 million isn’t wired to a certain numbered bank account. Yes, this sounds like a gimmicky premise, because it is. And it isn’t long before one begins to wonder how the killer is actually going to pull it off—or really, how the filmmakers will. Fears of empty promises flood the brain.

But as it turns out, the murders are quite inventively set up and executed. It would be a shame to spoil the surprise of any of them here. Suffice it to say that most viewers won’t see any of them coming ahead of time—nor will they foresee any of the elements in the elaborate ploy the killer has concocted to cast growing suspicion on Marshal Bill Marks as the man most likely behind these acts of terror. By the film’s last half-hour, most of the passengers are at the very least convinced that he’s up to no good. Some of them want to go so far as to put him out of commission. You can’t blame them: After all, people are dying. And as they keep doing so, Bill’s zeal to uncover the assassins gets increasingly wild-eyed—with increasingly desperate measures. You can’t blame him either.

Indeed, it’s easy to relate to where just about all these characters are coming from. Not every one of them is deeply developed, but each has an issue that makes this potential mass murder into something personal. Jen (Julianne Moore, all spunk and self-deprecating charm) is a woman living on borrowed time with her defective heart. Head flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) is having a thing on the side with the co-pilot. Seven-year-old Becca (Quinn McColgan), who is traveling all by herself, is afraid of flying on a plane. And so on, for another half-dozen characters who make a lasting impression. It may sound like they have the same kind of problems that people used to have in the old Airport movies. But unlike the often hammy all-star casts of those films, this ensemble consists of competent character actors, who keep their issues convincing by keeping them real.

And no one has bigger issues than Neeson’s Bill, who we first see sitting in his car, pouring a double shot of whisky into his coffee cup. So Bill’s a problem-drinker. And from the hangdog look on his face, and his aloofness toward everyone around him, and the way he lingers over his little daughter’s photo before leaving his car to catch his flight, we get that he has suffered some sort of tragic loss. His big frame seems to sag under that weight. This is what makes it just a bit more stirring when he is galvanized into action. This is what makes Neeson such a compelling action figure,

Neeson’s gravitas is what sets him apart from most of the action pack. He never just goes through the motions, even when the part he’s playing isn’t really worth the effort. It doesn’t seem to be in him to just go through the motions. So when he gets a character who has something to fight for—or fight back from—he gives it his all. The action part just springs from that. There’s never been much doubt that this guy could land a killer knockout punch.

Neeson doesn’t really get to do so much of that in Non-Stop. The fights here are relatively few and far between. But what close combat there is has been excitingly choreographed—especially during a ferocious close encounter that takes place in your standard-size airplane lavatory. This is the best example of how director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also helmed the Neeson starrer Unknown) has made the most of his confined space. All but a few scenes take place on that jet—but Collet-Serra’s quick-shifting camera keeps the pace crisp and the interactions dynamic. The film only feels as claustrophobic as it’s meant to be—for maximum suspense.

Maybe it should have come as no surprise that Non-Stop is Neeson’s most solid action vehicle in a while. Its head producing honcho is, after all, Joel Silver, who could have quit after the Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Matrix series, and called it a great career. But he’s still in there, throwing heat. And maybe he should keep doing that with Liam Neeson. This aging action icon may only have a few good years left. A maestro like Silver could help him make the most of them.