A good old-fashioned B-movie thriller updated with modern technology and post-9/11 air travel commentary, Non-Stop is a real blast as long as you manage to shut your brain off for the duration of its 106-minute running time. It may not be high-art, but this is the closest you’ll get to an airborne 1990s-style actioner in the Passenger 57/Executive Decision mold.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop is also the latest in a series of action vehicles for star Liam Neeson, one of our unlikeliest action heroes, who became a rogue badass in Taken and followed that up with action roles in a sequel and the director’s previous feature, Unknown.
Neeson is almost a parody of himself in these movies (though he did excel in action mode in his one serious feature, the underrated The Grey), but there’s clearly a market for this kind of self-conscious action film that doesn’t completely fall into wink-wink territory the way the recent Schwarzenegger & Stallone films have.
And when done right, these can be plenty fun. There’s a precarious line that Collet-Sera, working from a script by John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle (this is the feature writing debut for all three), must straddle: too serious, and we’ll laugh at it, not serious enough and it’ll lose our attention. Non-Stop just about finds a perfect balance.
Neeson stars as Bill Marks, an in-the-dumps Federal Air Marshal still mourning the death of his daughter some years back. He boozes up in his car before a trans-Atlantic flight to London, and even lights up in the airplane lavatory (duct tape over the smoke detector is apparently all you need) but before you have time to consider a Flight-like examination of airline personnel, Non-Stop quickly interjects a ridiculous series of events that constitutes its terrorist plot.
Mid-flight, Marks receives a mysterious threat via text message on what should be a secure Air Marshall network. During an increasingly tense conversation, a (supposed) terrorist demands that $150 million be wired into an overseas account. If his demands aren’t met, one of the passengers will die in exactly twenty minutes, and every twenty minutes after that.
Now things start to get interesting. If we take a moment to examine the first murder, we quickly realize that the terrorist’s plot is based on event that he/she has no control over, and developments that he/she could not possibly foresee. Standard thriller territory. But this is a dogged Liam Neeson in what amounts to Ten Little Indians on an airplane, and the film has plenty of fun keeping us guessing until it feels the need to explain itself and deliver.
Non-Stop is a conventional thriller in many regards – and that unfortunately by-the-numbers talking-killer climax really leaves a bad taste – but Neeson and a talented supporting cast help to keep things lively. Julianne Moore is the woman who sits next to him on the plane; Shea Whigham is a fellow Air Marshall; Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) is the flight attendant who assists Marks; Linus Roache plays the pilot; and Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, and Nate Parker are passengers who come under suspicion.
Likely Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) also stars, in a small role as another flight attendant; while Non-Stop was filmed well before her awards-season acclaim, I would have thought they’d at least edit the movie in a way to give her maximum exposure. Nope: she’s completely wasted in a nothing role.
By the way, the text conversations that occur throughout the film are inventively realized on screen, popping up alongside Neeson in text bubbles with autocorrected typos, predictive text, and other text-speak that gets a number of sly chuckles throughout. Nice touch, guys.
Getting more and more ridiculous as it goes along, you might have an urge to laugh Non-Stop right off the screen. But that isn’t entirely unintentional: this is a film that knows what it is and delivers the high-concept thriller-movie goods in a blisteringly entertaining manner. Non-Stop may not be high art, but it’s plenty of fun regardless.