Action Film Review

Mile High Film Review: Non-Stop

February 28, 2014Ben MK

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A Hitchcockian hijacking

By Ben Mk

Oone day soon, there might be an entire generation of moviegoers who'll have grown up never knowing that Liam Neeson was anything other than an action hero. The man is just so proficient at taking out the bad guys that we can't get enough, whether he's tussling with shady human traffickers, big bad wolves or rogue CIA agents. And in his second collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, Neeson is taking his two favorite things in the world — his fists and his gun — to heights they've never gone before — 40,000 feet in the air.

In Non-Stop, Neeson plays Bill Marks, a man with alcohol abuse issues and a fear of flying (actually, he's just never gotten used to the take-offs), who also happens to be carrying some excess emotional baggage, on his way from New York City to London. Marks isn't your ordinary airline passenger, but then again, this isn't your ordinary non-stop transatlantic flight. As he prepares to board, he surveys the other passengers for signs of suspicious activity — all part of his responsibilities as a Federal Air Marshal for the TSA. But what begins as a routine assignment takes a deadly turn, when midway through the trip he receives a series of anonymous text messages from someone threatening to kill one person every 20 minutes, unless 150 million dollars is deposited into an off-shore bank account. As Marks begins to narrow down the list of potential suspects, shades of a disturbing conspiracy begin to emerge — and when it becomes apparent that someone is trying to frame him as a hijacker, he must find a way to clear his name and put a stop to the situation before the body count rises even further. Could the real culprit be fellow Air Marshal Jack Hammond (Hell on Wheels' Anson Mount), fellow passenger Tom Bowen (Scoot McNairy) or seatmate Jen Summers (Julianne Moore)? Also along for the ride are 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o (sporting a funky Grace Jones inspired haircut) and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery, as a couple of flight attendants, as well as Batman Begins' Linus Roache as the waylaid flight's steadfast pilot.

Collet-Serra doesn't stray too far from the formula of his previous feature, Unknown. As with that film, Neeson is dropped smack in the middle of a Hitchcockian mystery that only he's qualified to solve — one that requires not only some deductive reasoning on his part, but also a bit of good ol' fashioned brute force. Luckily, we the audience know that he's up to the task, as we've seen him do it before, and the schtick has yet to grow tired. Most of the fun of the film is watching Neeson tear his way through the plane like a bat out of hell, trying to get to the bottom of things. Occasionally, when he encounters an obstacle that his intellect can't overcome, that's when the gloves come off (or the handgun comes out). And that's when the picture ascends to a higher altitude. The action scenes in the close quarters of Economy Class are visceral and brutally satisfying, even if they are too few and far between, proving yet again that nobody messes with Mr. Neeson and lives to tell the tale.

When it comes to the mystery at the center of the film, this whodunnit doesn't afford as many opportunities for misdirection as Unknown, thanks to the tight confines of its setting (although, like that film, there is, serendipitously, yet another briefcase that factors into the plot). In fact, Linus Roache's character sums it up nicely when he remarks, "How do you kill someone on a crowded plane and get away with it?" In other words, there are only so many directions the plot can go and only so many false leads screenwriters John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle can throw at the audience before the situation becomes patently ridiculous and the plot starts wearing thin. But thankfully, it never does. Chalk that up to the film's solid performances (although Nyong'o, Dockery and Roach's talents are woefully underused), slick production design and cinematography (keeping the display of back-and-forth texting between Marks and his tormenter from becoming mundane, and scoring bonus points for the clever way in which a certain four-letter word is obscured from view of the PG-13 audience) and wry sense of humor (the highlight of which has Neeson subduing a crowd of angry passengers by offering everyone unlimited free international flights for a year), all of which make an ocean of difference in keeping the film feeling fresh.

The Bottom Line

By this stage in the game, action thrillers starring Liam Neeson ought to be named a genre unto themselves, because moviegoers know exactly what they're going to get once they set foot in the theater. Non-Stop has the potential to come off as totally derivative, as it doesn't deviate much from the proven "Liam Neeson, action hero for hire" template established by Unknown and the Taken series; but it manages to impress by just doing what it does, and doing it well. As a competently-scripted and well-executed vehicle for Neeson to once again showcase his detective skills and prowess in pummeling his enemies, Non-Stop may not be high art — but it's definitely pure popcorn fun. [★★★½]

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