Everyone who sees the trailers and TV-spots for Non-Stop, the ones where Liam Neeson beats people up on an airplane while racing against time to stop a hijacking, quickly labels the film “Taken on an airplane”. If only it was. Taken transformed the dramatically gifted Neeson into a rare breed of authentic, old-age action hero, and the key to what makes that film such a great time is how willing it is to bypass a sensible plot in favor of one bonkers smack-down after another. Taken is infectiously ballistic, and you can tell from its trailers that Non-Stop wants to be the same. And though Neeson’s beat-downs and shouting threats still hit with brute force, screenwriters John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle pack so many unneeded, eye-rolling clichés into the story that Non-Stop is neither as emotional as it wants to be nor as ludicrously fun as it should be. What’s left is a disappointingly average action thriller.
Neeson is in typical form as William “Bill” Marks, a U.S. Federal Air Marshall caught in a hijacking mystery aboard a commercial flight from New York to London. Despite being on a secure network, Marks begins receiving text messages mid-flight from an anonymous hijacker who claims he’ll start killing passengers every twenty-minutes until $150 million is transferred into a secret bank account. Slowly, this hijacking becomes a head-spinning game of Clue in the sky, made all the more twisted when the bank account is revealed to be in Marks’ name, making him target #1 for the hijacking. On board with Neeson is a host of talented supporting players with not much to do but act panicked and/or stand-offish, including Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michele Dockery, Corey Stoll, and Lupita Nyong’o (side note: Nyong’o shot the picture before her career exploded with an Oscar-nomination for 12 Years A Slave, and watching her walk around the cabin without uttering a single world of dialogue is unintentionally humorous).
The central mystery, in addition to Neeson’s typical blend of charisma and “don’t-mess-with-me” rage, is easily the film’s biggest strength. While director Jaume Collet-Serra shoots the action with some haphazard editing, he keeps the film moving with some pretty excellent one-takes that swerve through the airplane and keep our main suspects in play without ever giving away who the culprit is too early. Serra makes key directorial choices so that the viewer forms a roster of suspects early, and he’s able to keep the viewer engaged by holding the film’s cards close to its chest until the climax spills the beans in a very believable way. The entire fun of Non-Stop is playing the “who-did-it-game” along side Neeson, and Marks’ own self-doubt as more passengers turn against him really adds some head-spinning fun.
The problem is that any time the film starts to come to life with that Taken-sense of ballistic ludicrousness, the screenplay completely destroys the energy with clichés that suck all the energy out of the movie. (Warning: Minor spoilers follow). From the start, we see Marks drinking whiskey in his car before the flight while staring at a picture of his young daughter, and it’s pretty easy to put together what it is that has our air marshal all messed up. If it wasn’t obvious, one of the passengers on the plane is a young child that you know will come into play at the climax. Though I understand the attempt to make Marks an emotionally vulnerable character, there’s really no need to make such blatant attempts at pathos when anyone buying a ticket for Non-Stop really just wants to see that Taken-gonzo-spirit at thousands of feet above the ground. The clichés around Marks’ past are beaten over the viewer’s head often, thanks to both the child passenger and a ribbon Marks’ child gave him, and it just brings the film down to a grounded level when it should really be flying to the bat-shit-crazy stratosphere.
Unfortunately, the clichés continue with both Julianne Moore’s character, who has an absolutely unnecessary past that when reveled does nothing to the story at play, and the eventual culprit, who reveals his intensions in a climactic monologue that tries way too hard to tie the film into current social themes about patriotism and American nationalism. Again, why spend so much time grounding the story in emotional themes when the action and the central mystery are desperately trying to break free and be an awesome February B-movie thriller?
One of the most preposterous moments of the film has already been revealed in the trailer, and it features a gun flying off the ground as the plane descends and Marks grabbing the gun mid-air and firing it. This should be one of those nonsensical moments where the audience has no choice but to erupt into a standing ovation because who-really-cares-it’s-just-so-goddamn-awesome. But that’s the problem with Non-Stop, it spends so much time trying to have a plot with emotional sensibilities (which it mistakes for clichés) that certain action moments like these feel laughably out of place. If Non-Stop was as preposterous as it sounded, it could’ve gotten away with these killer moments, but as is it’s a grounded action thriller with only occasional crazy pay off.
Review by Zack Sharf