Over the past decade, Liam Neeson has experienced a career resurgence as an action movie star: he trained the Dark Knight in Batman Begins, tracked down his daughter in Taken, released the Kraken in Clash of the Titans, battled the elements in The Grey, and barked orders in Battleship. Now Neeson is taking to the skies in Non-Stop, in which he plays an alcoholic Federal Air Marshal who receives a series of texts from a mysterious passenger threatening to kill one person every twenty minutes.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore
We first see Neeson's Bill Marks drinking in his car in the airport parking lot before he heads to the terminal, keeping his eyes peeled for suspicious activities at all times. The script clunkily introduces a series of characters who - shocker - become important once they're off the ground, including Julianne Moore as the window-seat-seeking woman who sits next to Neeson and character actors like Corey Stoll, Nate Parker, Scoot McNairy, and Anson Mount, who may be the mystery man antagonizing our hero and ultimately setting him up to take the fall for the body count that starts accruing on the plane. (There's also a pitifully underwritten role for 12 Years A Slave actress Lupita Nyong'o, who only has about five lines in the whole film.)
While the premise isn't exactly the most original thing I've ever heard, director Jaume Collet-Serra (who reteams with Neeson here after the two collaborated on 2011's Unknown) is a strong fit to helm this kind of contained thriller, and he manages to avoid making the film feel feel claustrophobic despite the fact that nearly the entire run time is set on a plane. (One exception, though, is a well-choreographed close quarters hand-to-hand fight sequence in the plane's cramped bathroom.) But because the action takes place on a passenger jet, there isn't a lot of room for the main players to work with; this movie certainly doesn't hold a candle to Air Force One, which provided ample room (and rooms) for Harrison Ford's president to outsmart his captors in the sky, or even Wes Craven's Red Eye, a much more effective B-movie mystery with a similar setting.
Still, the screenplay weaves in a number of passably entertaining twists and turns, including a cell phone video leaked to the public below that indicates Neeson is hijacking the plane, a plot point which plays perfectly into the bad guy's plans to frame him. Allegiances between Neeson and the passengers are tested, and as time ticks down, we finally discover the true motivation behind the culprit's actions: disillusioned by what he perceives to be the country's lackluster security efforts, the bad guy wants to prove a point by blowing up the plane. It's the sort of eye-rolling scheme you'd expect from a villain in one of those aforementioned '90s action movies, but even Ed Harris' General Hummel in The Rock (a villain who shared a similarly disillusioned worldview) is eventually seen as sympathetic, an emotional chasm this bad guy never manages to cross.
Those who buckle in expecting a non-stop (hah!) action extravaganza will be disappointed with this one, considering the film is actually more of a mystery than a straight-up action vehicle. There are only a handful of action sequences, and the kind of ridiculous scenarios you see in the trailer (like Neeson grabbing his gun out of mid-air and firing as he's falling through the aisle) are surprisingly rare. Personally, I would have preferred if it went further into one-liner territory because at least then it may have had a chance of being memorable. "Have some peanuts," Neeson would growl before throwing some in a bad guy's face and knocking him out. "They're complimentary." (As of now, the most memorable thing about this movie is a hilarious "Key & Peele" sketch about it.) But the most ironic aspect of Non-Stop is that it feels reminiscent of a paperback thriller one might read during a cross-country flight: decently plotted, mildly entertaining, and ultimately just something to do to pass the time.