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A constant low boil of ridiculousness both mocks and sustains Non-Stop, a jerry-rigged terror-on-a-plane thriller with a premise so far-fetched as to create a degree of suspense over how the writers will wriggle out of the knot of their own making. With a setup and dramatic rationale more strange than compelling, this almost entirely airborne concoction is an easy sell as this season’s Liam Neeson kick-ass action entry, meaning that Joel Silver‘s debut as a Universal producer after his long tenure at Warner Bros. looks to land in a safe haven commercially.
Neither as gritty and cheesy as his Taken movies nor as deadly serious as The Grey, this reunion of Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra (their 2011 thriller Unknown raked in $130 million worldwide) no doubt deliberately recycles aspects of the Taken films by making the lead character a wild-card government lawman with a young daughter. In addition to that, Federal Air Marshal Bill Marks is an alcoholic and something of an emotional wreck but is still allowed to pack a pistol on a plane.
Riding shotgun on this Aquabritish flight from New York to London, Bill takes the opportunity to enjoy business class and the company of chatty seatmate Jen (Julianne Moore) but is interrupted in short order by a series of text messages, evidently from someone on board, warning that a passenger will be killed unless Bill arranges for $150 million to be deposited into a certain account within 20 minutes. Someone does duly expire, and another after that, and the trick card played by first-time screenwriters John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle is that the accumulating deaths point the finger of guilt directly at Bill, who’s supposedly on board to protect the passengers from any such culprit.
With the clock ticking away, Bill, with the reluctant help of a flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) and Moore’s well-traveled professional, urgently tries to profile the passengers to narrow down his list of suspects: There’s the surly bald man, the obvious Muslim, an unfriendly black guy, a weirdo with glasses and a few more. Whoever it is, he knows something about Bill and definitely knows how to yank his chain.
Although he was a cop for 25 years, Bill doesn’t exactly fit the ideal profile for an air marshal; he hates flying, is so panicky during takeoff that he wraps a good-luck ribbon around his hand and sneaks smokes in the bathroom (he knows how to block the alarm sensor). The pilots don’t seem to entirely trust him and, after he pummels the first suspect to death (he sort of deserves it), you suspect he doesn’t know his own strength and can’t control himself. How he then manages to prevent anyone else from noticing the body is just one of the many inconvenient issues Collet-Serra nimbly deals with by ignoring it.
As the implausibilities continue to accumulate, you feel the strain the screenwriters must have felt in trying to come up with the periodic action the format demands while keeping the villainous texter’s identity a secret. As he continues to receive messages from someone on board but fails to deduce who’s sending them, Bill moves passengers around the cabin, gets very rough with some of them and ignores the seat belt rule through most of the flight. If nothing else, the film offers a convincing case for banning cell phone use during flights (and who gets reception over the North Atlantic anyway?).
The most interesting development is the eventual mutiny of the passengers against their alleged protector. Television has begun reporting that the flight has been hijacked by none other than its air marshal, who’s tarred, feathered and convicted on the air while he’s trying to deal with the bomb he’s found on board. Meanwhile, two military jets are flying alongside with orders to down the plane if it descends as Bill insists it must.
The finale is comparable in nature to the great plane crash sequence in Robert Zemeckis‘ Flight, but is not nearly as nerve-rackingly convincing. Given that so many of the 150 people on board come under suspicion at some point, the eventual unmasking of the villain, or villains, is no more or less surprising than if it had been anyone else. But the rationale for the dastardly plot is hokey and thin, hardly worthy of the great lengths pursued it pull it off.
Looking deliberately grizzled and worse for wear, Neeson gives his besieged character all the texture he can; Bill is not a run-of-the-Hollywood-mill tough guy hero who automatically wins respect via his natural movie star authority and is automatically going to save the day; only when, under duress, he is forced to give an honest, self-deprecating speech to the anxious passengers does he win their respect. With the exception of the flight attendants played by Dockery and Lupita Nyong’o, who has a half-dozen perfunctory lines at best, everyone else, including Moore, primarily has to be good at projecting potential guilt even while seeming just like normal folk.
Production: Silver Pictures
Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle, story by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach
Producers: Joel Silver, Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman
Executive producers: Steve Richards, Ron Halpern, Olivier Courson, Herbert W. Gains, Jeff Wadlow
Director of photography: Flavio Labiano
Production designer: Alexander Hammond
Costume designer: Catherine Marie Thomas
Editor: Jim May
Music: John Ottman
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
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