Liam Neeson offers another entry in his ass-kicking oeuvre with Non-Stop, a nonsensical but — who cares — totally fun bit of action fluff.
2009: Taken. 2011: Unknown. 2012: The Grey. Does the man know how to do late-winter action or what?
Bill Marks (Neeson) is an air marshal aboard a flight to London from New York City. Shortly after takeoff, he receives a string of texts telling him that a passenger will die in 20 minutes if $150 million isn’t wired to an account. Bill, who is sitting in first class, checks with the air marshal (Shea Whigham) in coach and then with the pilot (Linus Roache). Neither seems to think that the texts are anything but a hoax, but Bill keeps investigating with the help of flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and his seat mate Jen (Julianne Moore), the two people he thinks he can trust because they weren’t texting at the time he received the messages. He hones in on a few suspects, but then time is up and a dead body unexpectedly appears. The clock is reset, but Bill quickly finds himself in an even more sticky situation than he’d originally imagined. His boss on the ground thinks Bill is losing his mind or, later, is in on the hijacking. The crew isn’t sure what Bill’s status is and the passengers, as they awaken to find an air marshal searching their phones, start to freak out.
Non-Stop is like a game of Clue — by which I mean that anybody could have done it. Liam Neeson in the cockpit with a coffee pot, Lady Mary Crawley in the aisle with the drink cart, requisite Arab guy (Omar Metwally) in the bathroom with poison. The movie lingers on this one’s eyes or does a close-up on that one’s hands, we get a throwaway line of Bill’s backstory here and there that suggests perhaps it’s our protagonist (from whose vantage point we are ostensibly getting the story) who is unreliable. The movie plays it so that up until the big reveal anybody could have done it.
Remember the Simpsons episode “Das Bus,” in which the school bus crashes and a group of kids lives, Lord of the Flies-style, on an island? The episode ends with a narrator saying “and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say, Moe.” That is a how the big reveal of what is truly going on in Non-Stop felt — random and afterthought-ish. While the identity of the villain is telegraphed fairly heavily, the execution of it — how it was all done, and why — seemed like it had been made up on the fly. All the movie’s creative efforts seem to have been spent thinking up new places and new ways in which Neeson can beat the Dickens out of somebody. And this is fine — Neeson beating the Dickens out of people is why Taken is a movie I’ve rewatched on cable pretty much every time I’ve flipped past it. In fact, for people who’ve been looking forward to this movie for just that reason let me say that Neeson does indeed engage in fighting in an airplane bathroom (one, if it can fit two people in it, about 10 times bigger than any airplane bathroom I’ve seen in the last decade) and that sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
But the movie, having assembled a pretty solid cast and set up the premise that I’m sure sold the screenplay (Liam Neeson fighting unknown enemy on a plane), the movie doesn’t let us unwrap the mystery so much as it flips over the cards and says “Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick, you know, because.” It wouldn’t have taken much more energy to play on the atmosphere of discomfort and suspicion that is part of modern air travel and create something enjoyably wry and clever.
There’s a difference between “twist I didn’t see coming” and “random plot construction,” and in trying to achieve A, this movie has wandered too far into B. That said, Non-Stop still offers a punching, growling Neeson punching and growling with the best of them as well as moments of humor, both intentional and unintentional. We know you have a lot of choices when you go to the movies, but action fans will thank themselves for choosing Non-Stop. B-
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality, and drug references. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra with a screenplay by John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, Non-Stop is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures.