If action films were rewarded with frequent implausibility points, Non-Stop would rack up enough in one flight to earn a free … well, farfetched Liam Neeson flick in all likelihood. Hopefully, it would at least represent an upgrade on this Spruce Goose-like vehicle for Hollywood’s angriest sexagenarian, which feels very much like a prototype that never got past the first-draft stage.
Perhaps acutely aware of the project’s deficiencies, Neeson is particularly convincing in the opening scene, in which we see his dejected, disheveled Bill Marks pouring himself a breakfast whiskey and bracing himself for the dreadful workday that awaits. Serving as a federal air marshal, his best case scenario is spending seven hours on a transatlantic flight seated next to a pretty fellow passenger like Jen (Julianne Moore), who poses no threat other than coaxing details of his tragic past out of him.
Alas, Bill’s day takes a nosedive when he receives a series of threatening text messages from an anonymous passenger who promises a murder every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired into a bank account. The fact the account is inexplicably registered to Bill ensures that he’s getting no support from his suspicious superiors on the ground. Consequently, it’s left to him—with some help from Jen and two flight attendants (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, bridging their onscreen class divide in order to slum here as equals)—to solve this locked room mystery. Much to our increasingly harried hero’s dismay, red herring seems to be the only inflight meal option.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) is clearly playing at something slightly subversive here, enticing viewers to indulge their worst tendencies with some unsavory profiling of the 150 passengers/subjects. Could it be the cop (Corey Stoll) with evident rage issues? Doesn’t that evasive weirdo (Scoot McNairy) seem like a bit of an evasive weirdo? And how about that Arab doctor (Omar Metwally)? Unfortunately, the camera’s tendency to accusingly eye the obviously innocent Metwally tips Collet-Serra’s heavy hand and largely ruins the transgressive fun.
Non-Stop’s story is credited to John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach, who’ve previously collaborated on such “new golden age of television” fare as Wipeout (“Episode 2.08”). The former’s extensive work as an editor (this marks his first writing credit) is evident in just how trim the script is, unburdened by any extraneous details (or rational explanations). However, it also expresses itself in a desire to constantly push the plot forward regardless of what glaring contrivances are required. Ultimately, the execution of the film’s solid concept is so slick that there’s never any opportunity for genuine tension to arise.
Clearly fancying itself Die Hard on a Plane, Non-Stop fails to deliver the equivalent of Bruce Willis pausing to process the fact he’s about to walk barefoot across a floor littered with shattered glass. While on bad-ass autopilot, Neeson is also operating at full-throttle here, careening from throwing punches in a cramped lavatory (a scuffle that won’t make anyone forget a similar confined space skirmish in Kill Bill II) to parading suspects around at gunpoint (not a great way to maintain command presence). There’s but one brief intermission—featuring Bill lounging on a toilet, pouring himself a drink and lighting a cigarette—that reminds us that we’re supposed to be watching an emotionally wounded fuck-up rather than an indestructible action figure.
Despite the escalating ridiculousness, Non-Stop remains passable escapism until it runs headlong into a “Can I get real for second?” climax, which doesn’t so much play the 9/11 card as throw down a straight flush. Needless to say, grounded isn’t Collet-Serra’s strong suit. To offer you a spoiler-free sense of the scene’s inanity: imagine if The Grey had culminated with Neeson squaring up with the alpha wolf, only for the creature to call a timeout so that it could sermonize about its issues with current wildlife conservation policy. And while you’re still wishing you had a couple of mini bottles of Bill’s breakfast booze on hand to help swallow the ludicrous reveal, Collet-Serra tacks on some mawkish emotional closure that may have you instinctively searching the seat back in front of you for an airsickness bag.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2014