A surprisingly layered story keeps the audience guessing throughout, making Non-Stop another notch in Liam Neeson’s action belt.
Liam Neeson is now 61 years old, but is at the peak of his action-movie stardom. Sound familiar? Well, if you needed a little more proof as to how similar Mr. Neeson’s career is to that of Harrison Ford, recall that Ford was in his late fifties when Air Force One hit theaters in 1997. With Non-Stop, we now have two films in the Hollywood canon regarding airline terrorism and starring AARP-eligible action heroes.
Neeson has averaged at least one action picture a year ever since he found his niche with Taken, and late February has brought us his token entry for 2014. If this formula seems stale to you, don’t tell Liam Neeson, or me, or the average theater-goer. Why? Because it certainly hasn’t become old for me yet, and Neeson handles these roles with equal parts finesse and enjoyment. Non-Stop is no exception, employing a deeper-than-expected story to compliment the surprisingly deep cast.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed Unknown (Neeson’s 2011 action flick), the film is handled with a similar level of suspense and thrill. In the midst of a trans-Atlantic flight, US Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) receives a text message that an unknown terrorist will kill one person on the plane every twenty minutes unless 150 million dollars are wired into a secure bank account. Several clues left by the clever villain make it appear that Marks is in fact the one hijacking the plane, so the race to prevent innocent deaths also becomes a quest to clear his name. Much like Taken, the film wastes very little time in the way of backstory, and by the ten-minute mark of the movie, we are thrust fully into the height of the conflict as we watch Neeson try to solve the mystery. On paper, this seems like a fairly derivative plot, but several steps are taken to keep Non-Stop fresh.
The first pleasant touch Collet-Serra gives us is a faithful feeling (or at the very least a very convincing illusion) of real time. The “20 minutes between deaths” allows Neeson to set his watch timer several times, and doing the math throughout the movie, the events depicted once the terrorist acts begin line up well with the runtime. This is an undeniable asset, because it avoids the two extremes of poor suspense storytelling: the obtrusive temporal expansion of a very short period of time, or being forced to sacrifice the buildup of suspense in order to fit in all the nuances of the plot.
In addition, the team of screenwriters did a phenomenal job in crafting a mentally-stimulating whodunit. Far too often when I watch suspenseful thrillers of the “anonymous killer” type, the twist and/or revelation of the villain is either painfully obvious or an equally-jarring jumping of the shark. Neither is the case in Non-Stop. No fewer than 6 or 7 characters on the plane are presented with enough parts of depth and suspicion to make them eligible suspects. This allowed me to keep speculating and change my mind on who the guilty party is throughout the film. No spoilers of course, but even with less than 15 minutes left in the film, I was still basing my choice off of hunches alone.
The key to this working is the cast that Non-Stop was able to secure. One of the reasons I am often able to guess the villain so early is that a reasonably-famous actor is almost always buried in the supporting cast with unknown actors. This makes them stand out and easy to flag as more important to the story than their introduction might suggest. However, that problem is rectified here by a very strong cast of characters, led by Julianne Moore as Jen, who is the passenger initially sitting next to Neeson’s character. Also along for the ride are Scoot McNairy (Argo), Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as a tough-talking cop, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave) as flight attendants, and several others. These characters are granted layers of depth, screetime, and unmentioned but lingering potential motives, making them all possible would-be terrorists.
The strength of the cast and a adequately charismatic performance by Neeson are enough to make me almost overlook the inherent flaws in a February-released action movie. At times the screenplay is a bit too obvious in its quest to portray Neeson as kinder than his gruff background might suggest. Most notably, his attempted emotional rallying speech falls a bit flat and seems out of place. Additionally, the tight storyline unravels just a hair in the third act and takes on an unashamed level of implausibility.
That being said, a movie like Non-Stop demands for you to temporarily suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the impossibility. Through Neeson’s reliability, the depth of the supporting cast, and the plot turns well-earned by the surprisingly thought-out story, I was completely able to get on board with the film’s intent. With the obvious exception of The LEGO Movie, this was one of the more fun times I’ve had in the theater thus far in 2014.
RYAN’s RATING: 2.5 Stars out of 4