The best thing about Non-Stop is that it isn't quite the movie it seems to be. At a glance, it appears to be yet another variation on Taken, the 2008 action flick that sharply redefined Liam Neeson's image. The film itself was nothing special, but Neeson was commanding and convincing as Bryan Mills, the rugged, determined man with a very particular set of skills. Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller Non-Stop cleverly recasts Neeson as a rugged, determined man suffering from a very particular lack of skills. The thing is, Neeson's authoritative presence is so persuasive that it takes us a good while to recognize how incompetent his character is.
Neeson plays Bill Marks (hmmm, those initials look familiar), an air marshall with a laundry list of debilitating problems. He's still attempting to recover from a crushing personal tragedy, he's perpetually exhausted and his alcoholism is getting pretty serious. Midway through Bill's latest assignment – a cross-Atlantic flight from New York City to London – a serious situation arises. Bill receives a text message from an unknown terrorist: if Bill doesn't convince the airline to wire $150 million to a bank account within the next twenty minutes, someone on the plane is going to die. Bill has reason to believe that the terrorist is one of the passengers aboard the plane, but who?
As Bill frantically attempts to solve the case, his concern begins to look increasingly like paranoia. As the bodies start piling up (because this isn't a 20-minute movie), his paranoia begins to look increasingly like guilt. Soon, passengers begin speculating that this air marshall may actually be a terrorist... partially due to Bill's erratic behavior, and partially due to the fact that the terrorist is making a clever attempt to frame Bill. Through a series of circumstances too elaborate to describe here, we arrive at a scenario where every action Bill takes incriminates him a little further.
For a while, Bill's aggression and confidence effectively mask his foolishness: when Liam Neeson tells you to shut up, sit down and let him handle things, we're inclined to listen. The trouble is that this Neeson character isn't a superhuman projection of xenophobic alpha male fantasies, but an all-too-human projection of American cynicism. He's a striking representation of America's assorted security agencies, using secrecy and intimidation to cover his wide array of inadequacies. Without revealing the direction the film takes, let it be said that the film promotes the idea that transparency – despite its inherent risks - will ultimately make the world a more secure place. I dig the film's ideas, but I'm less enthusiastic about the way it uses preachy monologues to peddle them during the last fifteen minutes. “You should have handed out pamphlets... it would have saved a lot of time,” Neeson growls at one character. Couldn't have said it better myself, pal.
Neeson's performance is an effective subversion of his current image, but the supporting players don't register quite as strongly. This is largely due to the fact that we're supposed to be uncertain about whether or not they're guilty, so they're required to remain enigmatic until the movie's final act (which admittedly produces some nice character beats). Julianne Moore (Still Alice) plays the helpful passenger sitting next to Bill, Corey Stoll (House of Cards) is a grouchy New York Cop, Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly) is a nervous nerd, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) is the fretful flight attendant, Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) is the less fretful flight attendant, Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) is Bill's suspicious-looking fellow marshall, and so on. Rest assured that the good people get an opportunity to act heroically, the villains get to make some big speeches and that the coda leaves time for a little romance.
I give Collet-Serra credit for making a glossy Hollywood thriller that's actually about something, but his stab at Hitchcockian suspense isn't quite as Hitchcockian as he wants it to be. He's unable to capture the building atmosphere of paranoia and claustrophobia he's aiming for, and the more violent sequences feel undercut by the film's PG-13 rating. On the other hand, he's awfully good during the scenes that focus on Bill and the terrorist exchanging text messages. Ominous words flitter across the screen as the eyes of our frantic protagonist dart back and forth, looking for a suspect. At its best, Non-Stop plays like a nifty piece of modern silent cinema. At its worst, it feels like a strident protest rally. As such, I'll let my recommendation hinge on whether or not you value a chance to see Liam Neeson offer a compelling rebuttal to one of his most popular characters.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2014