In my discussion of 3 Days to Kill last week, I made note of how star Kevin Costner's turn as an aging CIA hitman was essentially mimicking the Liam Neeson action model that's served the Oscar-nominated Irishman quite well in the six years since the first Taken hit screens. Now here we are one week later, and the real thing is here to show us all how it's done. In Non-Stop (or, as I call it, "Liam Neeson Action Movie 2014"), Neeson stars as air marshal Bill Marks, a harried, hard-drinking behemoth of a man who also (of course) happens to hate flying.
Settling in for a routine run across the pond to London, Marks receives an anonymous text message (on his secure phone) from one of the passengers, threatening to kill someone every twenty minutes until a $150 million deposit is made into a specific account. From there, a mid-air manhunt begins, with Marks trying desperately to track the killer, all the while keeping the passengers' growing fears at bay and, in a variation on the hoariest of action picture cliches, being relieved of duty and handing his gun and badge over to the pilot (Linus Roache).
It's a premise that's about as Hitchcockian as it gets, and to his credit, director Jaume Collet-Serra does a very nice job of setting up the various characters/suspects in the opening reel so that we can sit there alongside Marks and try puzzle out who to eliminate from suspicion. There's Jen (Julianne Moore), the free-spirited flyer with the mysterious scar on her chest. There's Zack (Nate Parker), headed overseas to interview with a tech company. There's Reilly (Corey Stoll), the overly-suspicious NYPD cop. And then there's Dr. Nasir (Omer Metwally), the well-spoken Muslim doctor who's scary because, y'know, Muslim.
With the tension winding ever tighter as time goes on, the mystery aspect of the story (with screenplay credited to three writers) plays remarkably well, and the filmmakers' device of having Marks communicating with the baddie via text messages works a lot better than you'd expect. In fact, things whir along efficiently right up until the closing moments, when things sort of fly off course with a final act reveal that tries a bit too hard to make the whole thing be about something. Also, the need to satisfy the action gods with an explodey climax leaves us with an experience that's neither fish nor fowl.
Lest that be read as me being overly negative, it's not meant to be. I enjoyed Non-Stop a whole lot more than I expected to, and a big part of that is simply from Neeson being so imminently watchable in these kinds of roles. He has the vulnerability to allow us to sympathize with his increasingly desperate plight, and the raw physicality to make all the close-quarters fight scenes feel bone-crushingly authentic. Non-Stop is very much the quintessential February movie. It offers enough pulpy pleasures to keep audiences engaged and invested during its breezy 106 minutes, but they're just as likely to leave it on the tarmac once the ride is over. B