Liam Neeson is back in fine form with an old-school whodunnit packaged as an action thriller, Non-Stop. Fans of the over-the-top action style of Taken may wish it had more stunts and less Agatha Christie, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment. Here are five reasons it works:
1) The setup is grabby.
Neeson plays a down-at-heel federal air marshal with a bad attitude and a drinking problem (he takes a belt of whiskey before getting on the plane, then tries to order a gin and tonic when he’s on it) but a kindly way with children. It turns out he’s harboring one of those routine Deep Dark Movie Secrets, but his backstory does both make him easy to identify with and mark him with a possible red flag when, in the middle of a flight halfway across the Atlantic, he starts getting text messages informing him that someone on the plane is going to die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into a specified bank account.
When people do indeed start dying — though none in a way that can be definitely tied to terrorism — air marshal Bill Marks discovers that security people on the ground have reason to believe he is the one hijacking the plane, for his own profit.
2) The cast of possible suspects keeps you guessing.
Marks has a variety of slightly odd, brief run-ins with people in the airport — one guy is angry when Marks slips by him in the security line, another offers him eye drops in the men’s room, another strikes up an impromptu conversation with him on a smoke break — and more on the plane, where we meet a fellow first-class flier (Julianne Moore) who insists on a window seat, a coach passenger (Corey Stoll of House of Cards) who is strangely hostile to a quiet Muslim (Omar Metwally), plus two flight attendants (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey and Lupita Nyong’o of Twelve Years a Slave) and both of the pilots.
At various points in the story, almost all of these characters behave in ways that seem a bit suspicious, which gives the audience plenty to try to keep up with as the mystery gets increasingly twisty and the stakes get more and more dire.
3) Politically, it’s not a sucker punch.
Non-Stop is aware of the parallels to Flight 93, but it doesn’t make a travesty of the post-9/11 era. The most groan-inducingly predictable way for Hollywood to deal with our age of justly heightened security would be to make anti-Muslim prejudice the real villain, or maybe international banking or just plain old evil capitalism. None of these turns out to be a factor in the script, which instead takes a surprising whack at leftism and comes down firmly on the side of law and order.
4) It has a spectacular climax.
Although the action is heavily concentrated in the closing minutes, the onboard chaos as Marks uncovers the truth and fights back to keep the plane from crashing is deftly handled by Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown).
It’s a potentially preposterous situation on several levels, but Collet-Serra makes sure to work in just enough explanatory detail to keep the exciting payoff on just the right side of plausibility.
Much has been written about the supposed popularity of geriatric action stars, but there’s really only one. Kevin Costner is a faded pretty boy who never fit the tough-guy role in the first place. 3 Days to Kill flopped and he hasn’t had a hit in 20 years.
Sylvester Stallone may have managed to pump up interest in the all-star cast he assembled for The Expendables but he has become a self-parody whose surgically manhandled face looks like a kid made it out of Play-Doh.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two movies last year grossed $37 million — total.
Bruce Willis still adds a lot to a movie, but mainly he’s relegated to ensemble roles like the ones in RED and G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Neeson, though, attracts a decent-sized audience even to losers like Unknown and Taken 2 as well as low-budget thrillers like The Grey. Why? He has the physical presence Costner lacks, he has the face of wisdom that Willis could never quite master and he never went for self-mockery like Schwarzenegger (or self-aggrandizement like Stallone). Neeson is just Neeson: Sensitive but strong, mellow but fierce, and not to be taken lightly: He’s a double shot of Irish whiskey that only gets better with age.