Liam Neeson is a lot like Punxsutawney Phil. Just as the famous groundhog looks for his own shadow every February 2, the rugged Irish actor stars in a low-budget action movie every February or March. The only difference is the groundhog predicts how much more winter we have left to endure. Neeson’s a lot more consistent – his arrival always marks the beginning of the action movie season.
This time out, Neeson plays Air Marshall Bill Marks. An hour into his transatlantic flight out of London, he begins getting strange texts on his phone declaring a passenger will die every 20 minutes. As set-ups go, it’s a clever one, sort of like an Agatha Christie novel on fast-forward. Thankfully, it’s handled very well. For its first two-thirds, Non-Stop is an engrossing mystery. The smartest thing it does is immediately cast suspicion on Marks himself, creating a narrative in which even the protagonist has to earn your faith. After all, when you can’t trust Liam Neeson, who can you trust?
Like his characters in Taken, Unkown, and The Grey, Neeson plays a weathered alcoholic whose family has been broken by trauma and his hard-nosed, job-first lifestyle. There’s a formula to these films, and Neeson’s developed a dedicated shorthand to communicating these characters to us by the time the first scene’s done. Non-Stop fleshes the cast out a little more than those other films, however. As in the Airport movies of the 70s and more recent disaster films, the plane will inevitably hold a doctor, a policeman, a corrupt policeman, a banker, a teacher, a distressed pilot, and a young child who must overcome her fears when it’s most emotionally poignant. It’s like an overpopulated “So-and-so walks into a bar” joke.
Again, Neeson knows how to skip across these set-ups in a heartbeat in order to focus us on the plot’s tensions. It helps that director Jaume Collet-Serra films the movie’s tensest moments as a trained marshal might perceive a knotty situation, scanning his environment, selecting details that don’t fit, and gauging the relationships between different suspects. Neeson’s supporting cast is better than many of his previous action movies, as well. Julianne Moore (Children of Men) plays Jen, a spunky, maybe-too-helpful passenger who spends takeoff trying to pick Neeson up. She’s joined by Linus Roache (Law and Order), Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and our newest best supporting actress (and my college classmate) Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).
I mentioned the first two-thirds of Non-Stop are a good mystery. That begs the question, what does the last third become? Perhaps inevitably, it turns into a cheesy 90s action movie, in which heartfelt speeches earn trust better than hard evidence, and outnumbered heroes even the odds through superior stunt work. What earlier seemed clever may suddenly feel a touch too simple. It’s at this point that Non-Stop should lose you, but it’s too late – the mystery’s tension and the performances of such a strong cast have already earned more than enough goodwill to convince your brain to just let it ride.
This is the kind of movie that the Neesons and Bruce Willises of the world pull off with ease. They cover when the plot falters because they know all the steps – heck, they invented half of them. Non-Stop does want to say something about how too much security can make us less safe, but it suffers a severe case of wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. You’ll know what the film’s trying to say by the end, but all the wrong people have all the wrong motives to make its message even remotely effective. Non-Stop is really best viewed as a thrill ride, and not any kind of commentary.
On a personal note, I tried to see this movie four times. The first, I was waylaid to the hospital, the second I postponed because of a sick pet, and the third saw me 30 seconds into the movie before a fistfight broke out between a half-dozen people in the theater. If you go to the theater, please have the decency to leave your fistfights outside – they won’t be nearly as good as Liam Neeson’s. Hmm, perhaps we need theater marshals. Non-Stop is rated PG-13 for action, some language, sensuality, and drug references. All of this but the action’s in passing, so it’s fairly safe for family viewing.