Ever since Liam Neeson sorta ditched being a serious dramatic actor in favor of playing a grizzled old bad-ass in Taken, it's been hard not to begin every critique referencing the actioner. And for very good reason, as every film has Neeson sinking further into his tough guy persona in variations of the Taken model: "Taken with wolves" (The Grey), "Taken with amnesia"(Unknown), and now it's Taken on the friendly skies with Non-Stop, which reunites Neeson with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra.
"Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride", one character says to Neeson's character fairly early on in the film, and it might as well be plastered on the posters, too. This is the sort of creaky action flick that practically begs the audience to ignore the many plot contrivances and sketchy genre tropes, and just have fun watching Neeson beat up bad guys at 30,000 feet. And that would be perfectly fine if Non-Stop lived up to its title with never-ending cheesy thrills, but there's not enough action to distract from a plot that never takes off.
Neeson plays federal air marshal Bill Marks, and when we first meet him he looks like he's been going to the same school as Denzel Washington's character in Flight. He's a chain-smoking drunkard who has just gulped down some liquid courage before waltzing past security to make his flight, where he'll presumably protect all of the passengers on board. In his undercover role he has brief, occasionally testy encounters with those on board, but since he stopped to help the angelic little girl flying alone we know he also has a heart of mush. Julianne Moore plays a chatty woman who maneuvers her way into a window seat next to him and proceeds to help calm his jittery nerves.
But jittery nerves are soon the least of his worries as he begins receiving ominous text messages on a secure network line. The anonymous sender threatens to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless a massive sum of money is transferred into an account. As the bodies start piling up, everybody turns into a suspect, and anybody of vaguely foreign heritage or even the tiniest accent is a potential villain. It's probably a good idea to keep an eye on the talkative chick with the red hair. The red herrings are thrown out as haphazardly as the twists and turns, which never make a lick of sense. There's some fun to be had with Neeson's increasingly frazzled performance as Marks goes from hero splashed all over the news as a terrorist, and of course his bosses don't believe a word he has to say in defense. Cue up the fighter plans hoping to prevent a potential 9/11 terrorist scenario!
And speaking of 9/11, the film makes an extremely ill-advised connection to the tragedy that can't be elaborated upon here for fear of spoiling key plot points. But suffice it to say it's an issue that is way too complex for a movie like this to handle and the half-baked way it's treated is rather insulting. What keeps the film marginally entertaining is the cast, who all seem to recognize exactly what kind of movie they're taking part in. Neeson is surrounded by a vibrant and very game supporting cast, led by Moore who seems to be relishing her role as Marks' mysteriously over-eager new friend. Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, and Michelle Dockery play their parts as possible suspects nicely, but it's distracting to see Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong'o here with barely a word to say.
Collet-Serra has a nice rapport going with Neeson, which may be why they've already got a third pairing on the way. The director makes good use of space, taking advantage of the claustrophobic atmosphere for the rare displays of violence. If Wesley Snipes taught us anything in Passenger 57 (besides always betting on black!), it's that fighting in an airplane aisle is a real pain, and it's even worse in the bathroom. He shows a real eye for choreography with some dazzling sequences that keep this mostly single-set film from becoming stagnant visually. Inconsistent pacing becomes an issue, probably due to the army of screenwriters trying to wedge in as many clichés as possible. A film like Non-Stop was never going to be perfect, but it should stick the landing and be exciting in the process. Non-Stop hits turbulence early on and never truly levels out, making for one bumpy ride.