Liam Neeson has created an unanticipated obstacle in his new life as an on-screen action hero. With the blissfully thrilling Taken in 2008, the Oscar nominee set a bar so high that it's become impossible for us to not wish for it to be hit every time. We crave his growling threats at bad guys. We demand that trace of vulnerability that makes his hero seem distinctly human and dangerous. We want him to dominate every moment of a film from its first shot to its final frame, oozing steely machismo and gritty sex appeal.
And when a movie doesn't deliver on this level, it can just feel like filler in his filmography. Non-Stop feels like filler.
Non-Stop not only reunites Neeson with Jaume Collet-Serra, the director of the 2011 hit Unknown, but also reteams him with the powerful screen presence and talent of his Chloe co-star Julianne Moore. Most enticing still, this thriller casts him as the Air Marshal aboard an international flight, forced to negotiate with a ransoming terrorist whose identity is hidden through cryptic text messages. Miles above the world, Bill Marks (Neeson) is the only line of defense his fellow passengers have against utter destruction. But as an alcoholic who has made a lot of bad calls in life, this Air Marshal isn't exactly the hero you'd hope for if you were trapped in this precarious predicament.
On paper, Non-Stop seems awesome. In execution it is frustratingly flubbed.
First off, Neeson is solid and starkly believable as a beleaguered Air Marshal who has lost his edge. His undeniable star power makes this flawed hero nonetheless compelling and defiantly affable. Neeson's chemistry with Moore--playing a fellow passenger and potential suspect--is sparkling even when the mood is tense. Yet the film's most interesting moments are when this Air Marshal's apparent anxiety inspires jolting fear in the passengers, spurring the possibility of mutiny against his imposed rule.
Collet-Serra had the good sense to stack the cast with truly talented performers, from Neeson and Moore to House of Cards' Corey Stoll, Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery, Red Tails' Nate Parker, and 12 Years A Slave's Lupita Nyong'o and Scoot McNairy. No matter how small some of their roles ultimately are, the ensemble commits to the terror-laced scenario, infusing the film with a thick static of panic.
However, the actual plot doesn't support this mood terribly well. A major issue for me was the texting. For the first half of the film, Neeson is cut off from biting dialogue and forced to glare at a cell phone as text bubbles--complete with an autocorrect feature--float on the screen beside him. It's ludicrous that so much screen time is dedicated to Neeson's face being buried in his phone. Texting is like computer hacking--which also makes an appearance--in that it is painfully un-cinematic, making tension feel forced… if not nonexistent. The dialogue also has moments of embarrassing inanity. Some lines sound so silly, they wrought laughter from the audience. For all of his earnestness, not even Neeson could salvage such stinkers. It's a shame that an actor of his caliber was forced to say (or scream) them at all.
Despite the title, the momentum of the movie starts and stops, as its hero stumbles blindly for a suspect. When it comes to the actual action sequences, however, Non-Stop positively hums. There's a handful of fight scenes that are properly enthralling, offering shocking violence and some spectacular fight choreography that had this critic literally gasping. But the plot in between can be quite wonky, then winds its way to a conclusion that's not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.
With sly camera angles and spaced out reveals, Collet-Serra seems to be striving to construct a smarter-than-average thriller. But the results are mediocre at best. He has no apparent gift for subtlety, hammering plot points home so forcefully that certain twists are too telegraphed to be anything but predictable. Basically, if you're hoping for Taken on a plane, you will be disappointed. But if you're willing to click off your brain and just enjoy Non-Stop for the loopy ride it is, it might just satisfy.