Written by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Liam Neeson’s face has become a world-weary, pock-marked road map over the years, detailing a wholesome leading man’s travails into cinematic battle. In the last 6 years, he’s revitalized himself as a no-nonsense action hero, an unstoppably tough Good Guy With A Dark Past, starting with the outrageous Taken all the way up to his new film, Non-Stop. Gone is the soulful dramatic lead of the early 1990s; in his place is a take-no-guff sort who better like you or else he’ll probably put a choke hold on you in about eight seconds. (His recent detour into voiceover work, in The LEGO Movie, was a pitch-perfect parody of the stereotype he’s otherwise embodied in his recent films.) Non-Stop is, as would be expected, an enormously silly film that either squanders or is saved by its overstuffed ensemble, from scene to scene.
Neeson plays Bill Marks—a monosyllabic name for a monosyllabic guy—a federal air marshal who’s been nursing the loss of his young daughter with booze for roughly a decade. He’s given his assignment for a flight from New York to London; once onboard, he’s taunted by a mystery person who texts him personal information and then threatens to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to an account in Marks’ own name. That’s just the first of many steps this potential terrorist takes in making Marks look like the true mastermind of whatever they have planned. Will the passengers be picked off like flies? Will Marks take down the bad guy in time? Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow?
For roughly half its running time, at least, Non-Stop is a cagey thriller, focusing less on Neeson’s physical prowess (or what prowess may still remain, as a number of the fight scenes are chopped together like salad) and more on him struggling to deduce what’s going on and who would be targeting him, of all people. The script, by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, attempts to twist things around as Marks grows more desperate in trying to ferret out the terrorist (who’s sitting among the passengers); on one hand, we have a federal air marshal who is presumably the real hero, but on the other, we have passengers, some of whom are burly enough, who fear that same marshal is a terrorist trying to hijack their plane unless they do something to stop him. The issue here is the same one the film runs up against in the final act, once all is revealed: too much is reliant on referencing, obliquely or not, the tragedy of 9/11. Certainly, any movie with this premise is implicitly commenting upon the U.S. security tactics post-9/11, but the explicit comparison—when the passengers, led by a nosy NYPD officer (Corey Stoll), huddle up, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the story of the men and women aboard United Flight 93—is too difficult to shake. There is or may be a subtler way to invoke 9/11 into a straightforward action film, but Non-Stop is unable to find it.
And arguably, the most enjoyable aspects of this film are in the early going, when Marks is trying to get his bearings as chaos looms above the surroundings. The reveal of who’s behind these nefarious machinations doesn’t play unfairly, if only because the story is so deliberately structured to be impossible to predict. Everyone is a red herring, until no one is. Thus, as Bill makes a deeper connection with his comely seatmate (Julianne Moore) or one of the nervous flight attendants (Michelle Dockery, though Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o plays another flight attendant in the background), the tension deflates ever so slightly. The mystery of why Bill is being set up is, as so often is the case with modern closed-door thrillers, far more exciting than the answers behind that mystery. No doubt, part of what makes Non-Stop tolerable throughout—in spite of unintentionally funny moments sprinkled here and there, such as when Bill encourages the frustrated passengers to go along with his latest scheme, lying about them getting free international flights for a year—is its wildly overqualified ensemble. From Neeson and Moore to Dockery, Nyong’o, Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham, and Linus Roache, there’s too much talent for director Jaume Collet-Serra to handle. As mentioned above, with Nyong’o and a few others, they’re only on screen for a combined few minutes, which makes their inclusion slightly odd. (With Nyong’o, of course, it’s coincidence that her work in 12 Years a Slave may get an Oscar the same weekend this film opens; still, it’s disappointing to see her so profoundly stranded here.)
Non-Stop is, by the very existence of its high-concept hook, a goofy little action thriller that, thankfully, rarely wants to be more than a goofy little action thriller. Equally welcome is the fact that this film, unlike the generally poor Taken franchise, is not without its moments of levity. Neeson, of course, is given a parting one-liner to a baddie, but he gets to smile a couple of times, which seems like something of a personal triumph these days. He’s no less exhausted by the world, no less worn down by the horrors he’s seen and faced up, only to bash them in the head repeatedly. Non-Stop is a diversion in his career; at its best, it’s not a painful extension of his waning action-star days.
— Josh Spiegel