By R. David

Viewed February 28, 2014

Just one week after Kevin Costner went all badass-CIA-assassin on a bunch of French terrorists in “3 Days to Kill”, Liam Neeson grabs the grizzled, middle-aged action hero torch – a late-career persona remake he has now, for better or worse, comfortably settled in to – and takes it to 40,000 feet in “Non-Stop”.  The trailers already have audiences calling it “Taken On a Plane”, what with Neeson being taunted by a mysterious madman on the phone and he being the only man who can save the abductees:  this time the hundred or so passengers on a Transatlantic flight to London.

Neeson is Bill Marks, an Air Marshall who we meet sitting in his car staring at a photo of his toddler daughter in between belts of booze pre-flight.  He makes his way through the terminal, the alcohol not diluting his watchful, suspicious eye for detail.  And just like that “Non-Stop” has firmly established itself as yet another film about a rugged, alcoholic cop, brooding over personal tragedy, but still the best at what he does.  Some of the details may have been tweaked, but the basics remain the same.  Neeson’s Marks could be John McClane in “Die Hard” or Denzel Washington’s pilot in “Flight”, or any of the several hundred variations on that nearly identical character in between.  It’s a tired but reliably effective action-film trope.  How many times, for instance, has Bruce Willis played the same sort of steely-eyed, hung-over, and tormented, yet courageous and righteous hero?  (I can think of at least a half a dozen just off the top of my head.)

Once aboard the flight, Marks begins receiving cryptic text messages on his supposedly secure cell phone stating that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into an electronic bank account.  Naturally, Marks sets out to find the assailant, who claims to be aboard the flight.  The film goes about establishing its cast of characters essentially by introducing all the possible suspects.  Could it be Marks’ shifty partner (Anson Mount, superb on TV’s “Hell On Wheels”, but in a thankless role here and unrecognizable without his salt and peppered beard)?  His awkward seat-mate (Julliane Moore)? A hothead NYPD officer (Cory Stoll)?  The quiet Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally)?  Or any number of the other dozen or so character ‘types’ who may as well all have a flashing neon sign above them that reads “Possible Suspect”. 

There is a twist of sorts that is spoiled by the film’s trailer, but on the off chance you haven’t seen it or have already forgotten what I’m talking about, I’ll simply say that that plot thickens when Marks’ credibility and professionalism are called into question and the pilots and NSA agents on the ground order him to stand down, which naturally only makes Marks that much more hell-bent on finding the terrorists. 

This is one of those movies where the audience ostensibly assumes they should be paying attention to all the little clues the film drops in order to identify a potential suspect, but like so many movies of this type, in its efforts to be twisty and surprising, logic often goes out the window. I guess we can live with unrealistic liberties like cell phone reception 40,000 feet above the Atlantic, but clichés and casualties of logic start to pile up as quickly as the dead bodies, rendering the reveal of who is behind this elaborate charade and their motivations fairly unsatisfying. 

Still, like I said, “Non-Stop” indulges a tried and true premise that needs only a few clever ideas and good performances to work at least somewhat effectively.  Confining the action to a single, mobile location builds claustrophobic tension and makes for some innovative action sequences.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (who directed Neeson in the similarly convoluted, genre-worn mystery “Unknown” a few years ago) most memorable directorial flourish here has the text messages Marks sends and receives popping up on the screen like dialog balloons in a comic book.  Technically, “House of Cards” has been doing this for its past two seasons, and no doubt some other cellphone-centric thriller has thought to do this before, but it still feels like a novel approach to the typical procedural action in this sort of film.  And Neeson is about as reliably sturdy a taciturn and intimidating everyman hero as we have in movies today.  He may be playing a variation on the same character with each of these similarly convoluted, lowbrow thrillers he churns out, but he is undeniably their main asset.

Less discriminating audiences will no doubt find enough value here in all of the above to rate this film more highly than I am.  But we’ve all simply seen too much of this before, and the film loses major points for its disappointing climax that – like most of the other labored sentimentality sprinkled throughout the film – seems to be going for something profound but instead earns only an arched eyebrow and a shrug.  “Non-Stop” is polished and fluid, and Neeson and the film’s sure-fire central mystery carry it as far as it goes.  But “Non-Stop” can’t sidestep its illogical plotting and, ultimately, it succumbs to its own rampant foolishness.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)