An airline with routes across the Atlantic — whose passengers’ greatest fear would be crash-landing in the ocean — probably shouldn’t call itself Aquabritish. It may as well be Titanic Air & Waterways. But in Non-Stop, the latest Liam Neeson thriller, plausibility is an ignorable commodity — just another part of the flight attendant’s droning instructions that no one pays attention to.
In this tale of Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson), who in midflight receives text messages warning that someone onboard will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into an electronic account, nagging plot questions pop up at a rate faster than the bodies drop. Such as: Who is allowed to text at 40,000 feet? How does a corpse in a toilet room on a crowded flight remain undetected for six hours? What sort of signal delivers a New York City news station to a plane flying over Iceland? Also, for fans of 12 Years a Slave, where’s Lupita Nyong’o? The Oscar nominee is billed seventh, but, playing a crew member and sporting a Grace Jones coiffure, she has only about three lines of dialogue.
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And most pertinent: Why demand logic of an action movie released in February, when audiences just want a nice, bumpy ride?
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spaniard who led Neeson through the slightly more ingenious entanglements of Unknown three years ago, Non-Stop does provide the requisite emotional turbulence. Marks is your basic flawed hero, an alcoholic ex-cop still mourning the death of his 6-year-old daughter (a lazy, shameful and standard plot device of action films), who takes the air marshal job despite his fear of flying. He could be the pilot played by Denzel Washington in Flight — an airman, reliable in a tight spot, with failings that jeopardize everyone’s safety — but sketched in crayon instead of Washington‘s subtle strokes. This is not a character study; it’s a vehicle, somewhere between jetliner and jalopy, with a cargo of cheap, sometimes efficient narrative tricks.
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Like a classic or rote whodunit, Non-Stop establishes a dozen or so early possible killers, all obvious stereotypes. Aside from the frequent flyer (Julianne Moore, playing more or less the Vera Farmiga role in Up in the Air) who insists on sitting next to Marks, you get the skull-shaved hothead (Corey Stoll), the nerdy businessman (Scott McNairy), the strangely quiet Muslim (Omar Metwally) and the angry black dude (Nate Parker). Maybe the pilot (Jason Butler Harner) is the miscreant, or the friendly stewardess (Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery). Each gets to cast a glowering or guilt-streaked glance Marks’ way, until the viewer begins to suspect all of them. Why couldn’t it be the sweet little girl (Quinn McColgan) traveling alone, who reminds Marks of his late daughter? Maybe she’s back from the grave, seeking airborne revenge.
(Note to the curious: Do not check IMDB’s cast billing for Non-Stop. It provides inadvertent clues to the perp’s identity. Also, do not pay attention to the explanation provided for the hijacking; it’s the same terrorist-victim gargle proposed in the 2006 British fakeumentary Death of a President.)
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In a cute second-act twist (revealed in the trailer, which semaphores most of the story by packing 45 shots into 30 seconds), Marks is not only the hero but also the main suspect: that $150 million ransom went into his account. Mr. or Ms. Evil knows a lot of Marks’ backstory, as we see in the text messages that float across the movie screen like a comic strip’s thought balloons. The film’s writers, John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, know a few things, too, about airplane melodramas. At least they’ve watched them: such golden age wheezers as The High and the Mighty and Zero Hour (the inspiration for Airplane!), plus the post-9/11 thrillers United 93 (desperate passengers rush the suspected hijacker) and Flightplan (an imperiled child, an air marshal and a secret villain).
John Wayne played the pilot in The High and the Mighty, and Neeson, in his late-blooming stardom, has a lot of the Duke’s truculence and physical authority. The persona of both actors is a troubled man whose interior demons are the very source and spur to his strength in a crisis. Indeed, the Neeson character comes to life only in a crisis. His “very particular set of skills,” as he says in Taken, the 2008 movie that launched his action-stud celebrity, are useful mainly in ending or saving lives. Away from the heat, he’s a lousy husband and father, a disaster at domesticity as he shouts in Non-Stop‘s big confession scene. That’s become a trope of Neeson movies — a series so successful it has become its own genre, with avatars like Kevin Costner filling in for Neeson in 3 Days to Kill.
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Shot in grainy, unflattering closeups occasionally alleviated by flashily edited fight scenes, Non-Stop is no more or less than what it intends to be: the kind of midlevel brainless entertainment you might watch, between meals and naps, on an international flight. Try to enjoy the ride — and no texting, please.