With awards season winding down, the world’s multiplexes are once again opening up to a broader range of movie as we start the slow, inexorable march towards the summer blockbusterpalooza. It’s time for an action movie, and cometh the hour cometh the man. Liam Neeson adds another troubled tough guy to his action hero CV in plane-bound twisty thriller “Non-Stop” from director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown”).
Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic US Federal Air Marshall with a tragic past. On a routine transatlantic flight, he receives a message on his secure phone demanding that $150 million be transferred into a Swiss bank account or someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes. This kicks off a tense game of manipulation and paranoia as Marks tries to identify the would-be killer while evidence continues to mount that it is, in fact, him that’s trying to hijack the plane.
Aeroplane-based thrillers have never really managed to reach the intensity and dramatic heights of similarly contained settings such as submarines or remote outposts. Maybe it’s the sheer number of people present on a plane, maybe it’s the sheer level of contrivance and coincidence needed to maintain the suspense or maybe it’s those little packets of peanuts they give out. Whatever it is, thrillers on planes are a mixed bag at best.
For a film called “Non-Stop”, it takes a while to get moving. The beginning is slow and dominated by gimmicky on-screen text messaging that even the makers of TV’s “Sherlock” would consider excessive but the mystery soon rises above the cluttered screen thanks to an earnestly world-weary performance by Neeson. He’s joined on the flight by Julianne Moore as Jen Summers, a passenger who begs and cajoles a window seat and ends up sitting next to Neeson’s Air Marshall as the flight takes off. Also present on the plane is last minute replacement stewardess Gwen Lloyd played by Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o who joins regular Stewardess Nancy (Michelle Dockery) in helping Bill with his investigations.
For the first hour or so, “Non Stop” plays its slow burning mystery very well, gradually but inexorably ratcheting up the tension with every setback or double bluff and it keeps you guessing. It tempts you to think it’s following the “Murder, She Wrote” formula so you begin to suspect the biggest name guest star but then it suddenly switches on you and you start to wonder if there’s a bit of a Tyler Durden thing going on here. Lupita Nyong’o’s recent Oscar win really distorts your suspicions too, because it really is a bit part she’s playing. But because of her sudden status you keep thinking she must be about to do more, or be significant but she’s really just a background character. Or is she? Yes. Yes, she is.
While it manages to avoid the ridiculous levels of conspiracy reached by “Flightplan”, the third act of “Non Stop” squanders its excellent cast, and all the suspense and mystery its worked so hard to build up in a cluttered and muddled action driven conclusion, including some played out John Woo-style firing while leaping sideways (as shown on the poster). Lost in all the frenetic fisticuffs is the motivation for the hijacking which, while clumsily articulated, was kind of an interesting spin on the whole ‘security versus freedom’ debate.
A good cast and an interesting premise let down slightly by an overly clichéd approach, “Non Stop” is still a solid thriller but it just can’t stick the landing, which is a real problem for an aeroplane. You’ll probably want to remain seated but there’s little need to fasten your seatbelts for this trip.