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'Non-Stop': Liam Neeson terrific in silly but engrossing airborne whodunit

Non-Stop

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There’s a moment towards the end of Non-Stop that wallows in so much ridiculousness that they even put it on the poster. During the scene in question, Liam Neeson grabs a gun as it floats in mid-air, takes aim, and then fires a kill shot, all while he flies backwards through the aircraft cabin. That this entire sequence takes place in ultra slow-motion just as the airplane goes through a near vertical zero-gravity dive only adds to its insanity! It’s a moment so preposterous that even M. Night Shyamalan would snicker. Yet, in spite of its stupidity, the moment had the entire theater I was in roaring in cheers! And wouldn’t you know it, I was one of them.

Liam Neeson unleashes his particular set of skills at 35,000 feet
Liam Neeson unleashes his particular set of skills at 35,000 feet
Universal Pictures

A lot of Non-Stop is like that moment – implausible, contrived, and silly – but Liam Neeson plays the part which such gusto and conviction that he single-handedly elevates the movie from C-grade trash to a tense and highly engrossing whodunit. Ever since Taken changed the course of his career, Neeson has become so good at playing these aging no-nonsense tough guys that he’s practically invented a whole sub-genre. It’s gotten to a point where everyone from Kevin Costner to Sean Penn is trying to get in on it.

In Non-Stop, Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who we first meet sitting in his car outside the airport as he stirs whiskey into his coffee cup using a toothbrush. An alcoholic and chain smoker, Marks is visibly reeling from a tragic incident that has left him a broken man who spends his days flying on commercial airliners as a way to escape his trauma. Then one night, half-way through a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London, Marks receives a series of anonymous texts that inform him that a passenger will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired into a bank account.

As I stated earlier, it’s a silly premise but it works because Neeson is an ace salesman. It also helps that director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also directed Neeson in Unknown) and screenwriters John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle keep the plot moving at a brisk pace, dialing up the tension, and dishing a school of red herrings. This is a movie where nearly every character has a reason to be suspected.

The supporting cast, which includes Julianne Moore as a fidgety woman with heart issues, Michelle Dockery as a flight attendant who makes eyes at the airplane’s strange co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner), Nate Parker as a computer wiz, Corey Stoll as an off-duty NYPD cop, Scoot McNairy as a creepy school teacher and Oscar contender Lupita Nyong’o as a new flight attendant, are all up to the task, even though they don’t all necessarily get enough screen time. Nyong’o in particular is shockingly wasted here. It’s likely that she filmed this before 12 Years a Slave was released.

Perhaps Collet-Serra and team’s smartest decision was avoiding the Die Hard on a… clichés by withholding most of the action to its last act. Instead, they treat the film as a murder mystery on an airplane in which everyone is a possible suspect. Think of it as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – except instead of stuffy British types and a little Belgian named Hercule Poirot, we have 150 smelly passengers and one very pissed off, and possibly drunk, Irishman cracking jaws, skulls and pelvises of anyone he deems shady.

Of course, with Marks treating passengers the way he does cockroaches, it’s not long before all the passengers begin suspecting him too. And for good reason! If I were to see an erratic man dressed in black running up and down the cabin, pulling passengers out of their seats by their ties, gun in hand, I’d probably think he was a hijacker too. But as the murders, which are quite skillfully weaved in to the plot, start piling, the film’s plausibility starts to wander off into the atmosphere. By the time the film nears its final act, the twists become harder and harder to buy. This is only compounded by the climax in which some really dubious motivations are revealed. Thankfully, this is also the moment when Liam Neeson grabs that floating gun and delivers a lead hole in one.

Non-Stop may not be a very plausible movie. It’s very likely that the entire plot will fall apart the moment you think about it. But as the most enjoyable action movie Liam Neeson has been in since Taken, it more than delivers on its promise for dumb thrills. Yes, it’s ridiculous but I’d also venture to say, ridiculously enjoyable.