A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2014 

NON-STOP jjj
½ 

2014, PG-13, 106 mins.

 

Liam Neeson as Bill Marks  /  Julianne Moore as Jen Summers  /  Scoot McNairy as Tom Bowen  /  Michelle Dockery as Nancy  /  Anson Mount as Jack Hammond  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Gwen  /  Corey Stoll as Austin  /  Linus Roache as David McMillan  /  Jon Abrahams as David Norton

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra  /  Written by John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach

NON-STOP is a new airline thriller that cheerfully plays upon one of the classic conceits of Hitchockian thrillers: The innocent man falsely accused.  Beyond that, it just may be one of the more fiendishly entertaining entries in the relatively new genre of the Liam Neeson-January/February-released action-thriller, films that contain the cold, cunning, and calculated 61-year-old Irish actor employing a “particular set of skills” to make life miserable for his adversaries.  

In 2009 the tall, rugged, and naturally stalwart actor engaged in a highly risky gamble of retrofiting and overhauling his image as a dramatic actor to become a bona fide action hero in the first TAKEN film.  Since then, he’s anchored and quarterbacked one silly, but wholeheartedly enjoyable action thriller after another with his gravel voiced bravado and authentically rendered tenacity.  Even the most absurd of premise in these films was made more tolerable by the actor’s imposing frame and presence. 

NON-STOP is no exception here.  On paper, the film has a gangbusters premise and is set – for most of its running time – on board the tightly claustrophobic confines of a transatlantic airplane.  Even when the script begins to devolve into one head-scratching plot development and twist after another, I more or less turned a blind eye to them because of what a slickly consummate job director Jaume Collet-Serra (2011’s UNKNOWN, also with Neeson) does at generating a strong evocation of tension, anxiety, and atmosphere throughout the film.  The script, for the most part, also works as a highly effective who-dunnit without tipping its cards too methodically from the get-go.  And, yes, then there’s Neeson leading the charge, whose innate gravitas as a performer helps to ground even the most insipid of plot contrivances here.  A lesser actor at the helm would have made NON-STOP unbearably ridiculous, but with Neeson you’re always involved and always invested in his character and the predicament he’s found himself trapped in.  The way he effortlessly humanizes these larger-than-life action films is to his esteemed credit.

 

 

Best of all is that NON-STOP never wastes any time with long-winded introductions and instead opts to thrust us right smack dab into the main character’s thorny predicament.  We meet Neeson’s Bill Marks, a retired police officer now Federal Air Marshall that has hit on decidedly rough times.  He’s a chain-smoking alcoholic that appears torn by a past trauma.  Oddly enough, he has an innate fear of flying, which makes his current vocation somewhat ironic.  When he boards a New York to London flight and begins to settle in, he receives a mysterious text message on a secure network, which rather quickly informs him that if he does not arrange to be wire the sender $150 million dollars into his bank account then he will murder a passenger every 20 minutes.  Initially, Bill takes the threat seriously, but with a bit of a grain of salt: After all, how could one person be able to kill another passenger on a crowded international flight every twenty minutes…and get away with it undetected? 

Nevertheless, Bill still takes the terrorist threat seriously.  He discusses the details confidentially with a fellow air marshal (Anson Mount), the captain, and eventually the head flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery).  Twenty minutes do indeed go by and, yup, a body does turn up (granted, in a highly unexpected manner), which allows Bill to fully realize the gravity of his situation.  Things go south for poor Bill quite quickly as it becomes increasingly difficult to narrow down suspects (seemingly everyone on board has a smart phone), but his dire dilemma becomes even more life and death when he discovers that the perpetrator may not actually want money, but rather wishes to frame Bill for the murders.  This comes to light when an investigation on the ground reveals that the bank account for the money to be transferred into is in…Bill’s name.  

And the proverbial plot thickens. 

Discussing the plot further would reveal too many of its wickedly intricate layers, and even though the film hurdles to a third act that may be somewhat difficult to swallow, NON-STOP manages to make the journey towards it so thoroughly thrilling and intoxicating as a classic murder-mystery thriller.  Even when the script segues back and forth between ingeniousness and preposterousness, I was still engrossed in the innovative ways that Bill comes up with to deduce possible suspects.  The film’s visual sheen – replete with tight close-ups, grainy hand-held photography, and close-quartered compositions – helps to embellish the film’s sense of escalating paranoia and confusion, during which time Bill is forced to use progressively inventive methods to find his culprit.  He’s joined frequently in his pursuit by another fellow passenger (Julianne Moore) that’s so twitchy and nervous that she comes off as a suspect…or is she? 

Despite the visual flare that Collet-Serra brings to the proceedings, let’s face facts…this is Neeson’s mile high thrill ride to own through and through.  The finest sequences of the film occur when it’s intently focused on Bill’s hunt and increasing confusion as to why someone – anyone – would want to conspire against and frame him.  Not only is Neeson fully up to the task of relaying Bill as a man totally broken down in life by past tragedy, but he also has to show him as a tough, no-nonsense, and gritty detective that will stop at nothing to secure his good name and save the lives of all of those on board the plane.  Neeson is crafty enough as an actor at his age to fully understand that the best manner to play these type of characters battling insurmountable odds is with a straight-laced, poker faced sternness, which helps the story’s more heavy-handed and ridiculous twists go down that much easier.  

Yes, NON-STOP perhaps contains one plot twist too many.  Yes, the final reveal of the masterminds behind the whole bloody fiasco uses a post-9/11 subtext that feels a bit awkward and forced.  And, yes, the film makes many categorical leaps in logic that that will have many shaking their heads in disbelief.  But does NON-STOP work on its intended levels?  Without question.  It more than gets the job done as a feverously intense, moody, and stylishly rendered cat and mouse mystery (that, and many of the action scenes - inducing a bravura one in a tight airplane bathroom - are marvelously realized).  It reminded me, oddly enough, of SPEED, another thriller with a crackerjack premise that got by significantly on how exemplarily paced and wonderfully constructed it was.  NON-STOP is patently daft at times, but as a highflying adventure about an innocent man falsely accused...well...it’s undeniably gripping.  Beyond that, it all but establishes Mr. Neeson as…the man.  You may question the veracity of NON-STOP’s scripting, but the actor crafts such a convincing on-screen character that you simply don’t care after awhile.  You just start to vicariously join him in taking the film’s exhilarating ride.  

That’s what movie star power is all about. 

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