What did the New York City-departing passengers on Aqualantic Airlines do to be the victims of a hijacking en route to London? More importantly, what did the viewers of "Non-Stop" do to be subjected to it? (One answer: it's February.) Once 40,000 feet up in the sky a series of creepy anonymous texts besiege the phone of U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), an alcoholic who hates flying but does so "too often". One text is ominous: a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired to the killer's account.
Early on at a New York airport as planes slowly descend through the drab, foggy white sky I expected them to spontaneously combust. Marks encounters several passengers, most of whom don impressive designer eyewear, perhaps to clearly see that the cheesy script by a trio of writers has Edam-sized holes in it. Every one on board Marks' London-bound plane is suspect, and Mr. Neeson's character is paranoia personified for the better part of an hour, until the reveal shows us something quite different. Marks often looks helpless and foolish but just because he's paranoid and an alcoholic it doesn't mean he's wrong, only that he's framed in a bewildering conundrum ala "Arlington Road" and many other movies.
"Non-Stop", a film thin in both plausibility and logic, nonetheless has moments of charm and interest, generated mainly by all the things about air travel and airlines in a post 9/11/01 America that irk us. This is the film's lone effective and appealing element. "Non-Stop" uses passenger impatience, frustration and fear to build tension and utilizes a "United 93" mindset. Mr. Collet-Serra's thriller would be downright ridiculous though were it not for some of the real-life on-plane stories that exist, including a co-pilot who hijacked the very plane he flew earlier this month. That doesn't happen in "Non-Stop" but most everything else does in a mainly tepid film that belies its title.
Mr. Collet-Serra, who directed Mr. Neeson in the silly "Unknown", employs red herrings and a solid cast including Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery (of "Downton Abbey") and Corey Stoll (of "House Of Cards") but none of the cast, Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong'o included, get to exercise their potential in a film shackled by moribund material. The relatively sedate characters, in contrast to Mr. Neeson's, are but pieces in a foggy, teal-green soup atmosphere best fit for a French noir thriller (see the excellent "Point Blank".) Characters in "Non-Stop" do radical about-faces as if jerked by a Taser wire. It's more circus than crisis.
Liam Neeson, who continues now into his 60s to have the primarily action-oriented career ("The Grey", "Unknown", "Taken") that Harrison Ford had in the 1990s ("The Fugitive", "Frantic", "Air Force One"), has cemented his status as the big screen professor of adversity and crisis management every late January and February. At that time at your local multiplex count on Mr. Neeson to have a furrowed brow, a rumpled face, a grimace and an aching heart. He'll probably be drinking. He won't be in a romantic comedy. Mr. Neeson is strangely chic, a reliable familiar, easy to go with in the two worst months of the film calendar year. Even his character names in these winter months look similar: Bryan Mills ("Taken") and Bill Marks ("Non-Stop").
There's several lines Marks speaks including one in a confessional moment amidst chaos, that makes you laugh, either because it is preposterous or because you're so uncomfortable by how bad the dialogue is. Either way it's a moment of thankless comic relief. The law of averages says that one of these days Mr. Neeson will do all his snarling and theatrics in a very good February film, oxymorons and hair-raising flight stunts be damned.
Also with: Scoot McNairy, Omar Metwally, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal.
"Non-Stop" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references. The film's running time is one hour and 45 minutes.
Omar P.L. Moore is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the editor and creator of The Popcorn Reel movie review/interview website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, read at www.popcornreel.com and seen reviewing films at www.youtube.com/popcornreel.
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