This week’s trans-Atlantic thriller “Non-Stop” is the slickest and most successful, cinematically anyway, of what will one day be known as Liam Neeson’s “tough guy” period. An actor who, for a long time was known mostly for his portrayal of Oskar Schindler, as well as a host of other period leading men in fairly drab movies, has, of late, been taking on the kind of Euro-thriller, revenge action movies that would have starred Charles Bronson in an earlier age. Today, Neeson’s biggest competition for roles is probably the Transporter himself, Jason Statham. These movies are certainly made better by the inclusion of an actor of Neeson’s caliber, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. “Taken,” “Taken 2” and “Unknown” are all pretty poorly made, but with “Non-Stop,” Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra seem to have gotten the mix right.
Neeson is Bill Marks, an immigrant from Northern Ireland who started his career as an NYPD office, but through a series of unfortunate events, finds himself washed up, broken down, and finishing his career as a Federal Air Marshal. As an aside, I should say how much I appreciate the fact that the filmmakers acknowledge that Marks is from Ireland. It’s a minor plot point and doesn’t play into the film, really, but it keeps the audience from having to wonder why, if this guy’s supposed to be from New York, does he speak with an Irish accent? This is my biggest beef with Arnold Swarzenegger movies. He’s never from anywhere - you’re just supposed to believe he’s the all-American guy next door — an assumption that is completely ridiculous unless you live next door to Austria. Anyway, kudos to Neeson and Collet-Sera for getting it right.
After boarding the plane, incognito as per policy, Marks settles down for a long overnight flight. Seated next to him is an odd woman named Jen Summers, who appears to have a secret or two of her own. Not long into the flight, Marks receives a text on his phone over a closed Federal network threatening to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless $150 million is deposited into a designated bank account. This sets into motion an ever escalating series of events as Marks must go further and further down the rabbit hole in pursuit of his quarry. When it’s all said and done, everyone is a potential suspect, even our hero who has to growl the phrase heard so often in the trailer, “I’m not hijacking this plane! I’m trying to save it!”
“Non-Stop” is one of those thriller mysteries that is just a blast, whether it makes a lot of sense or not. I have a friend who used to fly commercial jets who I’m sure will be filling me in on the myriad inaccuracies in this film, but in a film like this, technicalities are beside the point. Motives and opportunities fly, landing on everyone from Julianne Moore, who ably plays Summers, to the dweeby guy in coach, to the Muslim doctor, to the captain himself. Unfortunately, like most modern mystery thrillers, it’s kind of a cheat, because it’s not like you can figure it out based on the information given. You can guess, certainly, and that’s most of the fun.
In a strange coincidence, both “Non-Stop” and last week’s “Winter’s Tale” feature daughters from the Crawley family on PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” Michelle Dockery, Lady Mary from the show, is Nancy, lead stewardess and old friend of Bill’s. She does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, though unlike last week’s appearance of Jessica Brown-Findlay, I was not moved to shed a tear when I saw her. Lady Mary is still alive on “Downton,” and she never as been all that nice.
There is plenty of silliness to be had in “Non-Stop.” Though good, it’s definitely a B-movie with B-movie problems. Plot holes exist and inconsistencies, too. Some plot threads are unceremoniously dropped, while others are left dangling, unfulfilled. The end, though I won’t spoil it, is too pat to be believed. But all that’s par for the course in a movie like this. “Non-Stop,” however, elevates itself above the pack, in part due to its cramped setting and no-win scenario. I was a little irritated to be manipulated and manhandled through every plot point, but it was far outweighed by the fun. Judging by the weekend’s box office, where it bested both “Son of God,” and Neeson’s other big current hit, “The Lego Movie,’ we may be seeing Bill Marks on a plane again soon.
“Non-Stop” is rated PG-13 for action violence and some language.