Ever since Pierre Morel’s hard-punching, gleefully enjoyable, only-slightly-morally-irresponsible neo-cult classic Taken hit theaters back in 2008, audiences have been enthusiastically returning to the movies to see a long string of Liam Neeson action vehicles, all featuring the man in extreme danger, using his imposing bulk and soulful eyes to alternately beat mean guys into submission, and charm beleaguered women who drift into his orbit, in the hope that the junky “I will find you and kill you” magic could be recaptured. Most of these films have, rather unfortunately, been largely disappointing. The amnesia thriller Unknown was – if you’ll excuse the critical pun – forgettable. Taken 2 most certainly did not live up to the thrills of its predecessor, and The Grey, while an excellent film, did not provide the trashy thrill that the posters promised; some of us wanted to see Neeson beating the crap out of wolves with his bare fists, not wrestling with his faith and with suicide in a dire and well-thought-out survivalist situation.
What a relief, then, that Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, Neeson’s new vehicle, finally seems to have recaptured the magic. Non-Stop is a decent, solid potboiler that actually manages to milk its simple and workable premise for actual thrills. It’s hardly Hitchcock or Polanski, but Collet-Serra (who was behind both Unknown, and the awesome Orphan) has managed to use atmospheric elements like silence and mounting frustration to build actual tension. He didn’t rely on a series of increasingly implausible plot twists in order to… okay, okay, there actually are a series of increasingly implausible plot twists. But Collet-Serra knows how to let them build, rather than just accumulate.
Staged as a whodunit, Non-Stop follows Federal air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) onto a transatlantic flight, just as he seems to be on the verge of some sort of breakdown. Marks is a drinker, and has suffered a loss in his family (a tragically close-to-home trope in Neeson’s filmography). When his flight takes off, he begins receiving mysterious text messages on his secure cell phone from a mysterious assailant who promises to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes until his/her demands are met. From there, Bill has to commit a series of suspicious and violent actions to find the suspect, all of which implicate him as a potential hijacker. Other suspects include pretty flight attendant Michelle Dockery, pilot Linus Roache, and, most notably, pretty and perhaps trustworthy traveler Julianne Moore.
The text messages are conveyed in a series of screen-within-screen speech bubbles that seem to float in physical space next to Bill’s body. While this sounds like it may have the sting of an obnoxious VH1 “pop-up” video, it actually comes across as a strikingly modern and aesthetically pleasing way to convey information. It’s almost as if the unseen killer has been granted his own subtitles. It’s a way of incorporating tech into a thriller in an interesting way.
Part of the reason Non-Stop works so well is the bare efficiency of its screenplay. It’s one of those action thrillers that – still channeling Die Hard after all these years – introduces elements early on in order to exploit them much later. It’s not quite as watertight as something like Die Hard – it doesn’t quite pass the refrigerator test – but it bothers to have an actual construct. The attempt alone is appreciated, and the success rate is high. Sure, the final whodunit reveal of the killer is – as it inevitably must be – kind of a letdown (resolutions to mysteries are rarely as good as their setups), but getting there is such a ride, one can’t really care.
The main reason Non-Stop works, though, is Neeson himself. He’s an imposing man who can indeed seem like a lumbering danger to himself, and who just might be capable of violence. We fear he may be actually off-balance. His deep voice, soulful eyes, and natural vulnerability, though, convince us that he can indeed be trusted, even when he is beating a man to death, or using an oxygen mask to wrench a knife out of a guy’s hand. It’s no wonder Neeson is such an appealing action hero. He’s built like an Irish boxer, but is handsome and calm enough to be instantly sympathetic.
Overall, Non-Stop is matinee junk food, but it’s some of the best we’ve had in months.