Because of Liam Neeson’s presence, some have described “Non-Stop” as “’Taken on a Plane,” but a more apt description would be “Speed on a Red Eye,” as in the underrated 2005 Wes Craven thriller “Red Eye.” There is a ticking clock that (conveniently) resets several times, a villain hiding in plain sight, and post-9/11 paranoia by the truckload. The beats and twists may be familiar, but it’s well executed, and director Jaume Collet-Serra wisely resists the urge to go turbo, as it were, resulting in a film that is not the action-packed thriller that its trailers suggest, and all the better because of it.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an air marshal boarding a plane leaving New York for London. A few hours into the flight, Bill receives a text on his secure server notifying him that a passenger on the plane intends to kill someone every 20 minutes until his demands are met (read: a wheelbarrow full of cash). Bill enlists flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and seatmate Jen (Julianne Moore) to help him isolate potential suspects, but quickly has reasons to suspect that either of them might be in on the plot. While this is playing out on the plane, the media on the ground is running with the story that Bill is in fact the hijacker, and once the world hears of Bill’s flaws (divorced, temper issues, drinking problem), he not only loses the trust of the public and gives the news networks a sexy (if completely backwards) narrative, he also loses the trust of people on the plane, the pilots, and the co-workers on the ground assigned to assist him. Worse, he still doesn’t know who is taunting him or what their end game is.
It’s difficult to see anyone but Neeson in this role, but if he doesn’t watch it, this is the only part he’s going to play for the rest of his life, and career renaissance be damned (those of a certain age might remember that Nesson nearly quit acting in 1999), it’s unlikely that he will be content with doing paycheck movies until he dies – he’s bound to want more. At the same time, it’s nice to see that Hollywood is willing to make mainstream action movies starring people that would be dead in the “Logan’s Run” universe. Movies without the word “Expendables” in the title, anyway.
Between this and “Don Jon,” neither of which needed her but are better because of her, Julianne Moore has made some interesting choices lately. She seems to have entered this ‘fuck you money’ phase, where she’s tired of playing the indie darling and wants to have a little fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. The rest of the cast is largely underutilized, despite the presence of big-time rising stars like Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) and Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”). Serra’s direction is competent, fluid and reserved – the flashiest bits are the way he displays Neeson’s texts on the screen – though we’re pretty sure that several rules of physics were violated in the big showdown. Damned if it didn’t look good, though.
No one will call “Non-Stop” their favorite movie, but it’s an entertaining distraction, like a thriller equivalent of 2012’s “Premium Rush,” though without the snappy dialogue (the opposite of snappy, really). And if Nesson is smart, he will leverage his success this month (he also stole several scenes in “The LEGO Movie”) into an even fatter paycheck. Hey, dude lost his wife in a freak accident five years ago. He’s earned this.