So my first thought is that it’s Die Hard: Die Elderly. In truth, Non-Stop is a labored action-thriller, one which fits its title in the sense that the living do perpetually breathe. A vehicle for the grand, big Irishman, Liam Neeson, the script does give him a good workout as, with the knowledge of impending doom escalating, the big Belfaster skitters frantically hither and thither around the fuselage trying to figure out who exactly is the sociopath who threatens to kill off one passenger every 20 minutes.
The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spaniard who worked his way up in the business using the video game and remake route, does something deceitful when he shows Mr. Neeson stirring an early morning drink with a toothbrush as the action begins. Our hero’s reliability is thus placed in question instantaneously. But that, unfortunately, is about as much depth of character as we’re going to get. Neeson’s character, Bill Marks, turns out to be pretty much devoid of any depth whatsoever, although the naughty Señor Collet-Serra messes with us for a wee while. An air marshal with booze issues, the question lingers in the saddlebags under his sleepless eyes: Is he up to it.
Marks trolls the airport nervously, then he enters the plane. In the first-class compartment we see various familiar faces, many from BBC television and I can’t help but recognize Michelle Dockery—Lady Mary from Downtown Abbey—the character actor Linus Roache, the hot actress of the moment, Lupita Nyong’o, fresh from playing Patsy in 12 Years A Slave; and—Wow!— looking about as glamorous as I’ve ever seen her, Julianna Moore.
Bill trembles as the plane takes off, either from fear or the DTs, before having a cigarette in the bathroom to chill out. Then he starts receiving text messages threatening to kill passengers one at a time unless US$150m is deposited in a Swiss account.
The script, written by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle is serviceable. TV-style ‘situations’ pop up to be solved while Neeson keeps up his relentless skittering about accompanied by some clever camera manipulations. It’s easy to forget just how limited the space is until Neeson gets in a savage fight to the death in a bathroom. It’s the best thing in the movie. Yet Neeson is simply too big to seem truly threatened, really, Neeson barely seems challenged. Yet, because he’s simultaneously an excitable, volcanic alcohol-besotted wreck, it sort of makes the state of his mental health into something of a parallel, secondary mystery.
Non-Stop works best before its secrets are spilled. Collet-Serra, who also directed Mr. Neeson in the hit Unknown, sets a sober mood and a fast pace early. But he also throws in some light comedy (some yuk-yuk sparks from the fine Ms. Moore as an enigmatic flirt), so that the inherent claustrophobia of the setup doesn’t become too oppressive too quickly. The metaphoric walls need to close in slowly, not slam shut! The plot developments, Bill’s relentless zigzagging through the plane and the nimble camerawork — which features some impressively long takes — create so much momentum that you soon forget how constricted the space is until, that is, Mr. Collet-Serra reminds you with another violent incident.
The rest is rather flat. Non-Stop makes zero sense, but these days, in this kind of film, all that seems to matter is that there be a smash-bang intro, followed by a few more smash-bang moments. Much is being made of Mr. Neeson’s against-the-odds resurrection as an elderly action hero, but I just refuse to bite because he always looks so embarrassed. That kind of hero, so well lived by Dean Martin in the Matt Helm movies and Rod Taylor in The Liquidator, doesn’t show up here. For those who take cheap shots at Harrison Ford, Rock Hudson and Steven Segal for being wooden, why so many of you give this hunk of podunk a pass is beyond me.
Mr. Collet-Serra understands his star well, though. His film Unknown uses the same or at least similar trope: Intellectually, Neeson thinks he’s one thing, but it turns out he’s something else! A skillful director with lots of money to spend and a hot actor who takes suspension-of-disbelief into the far extremities in Taken and Taken 2, Mr. Collet-Seras earns his crust with a sure hand in the thriller genre. Given a good 90-minute script with a believable denouement and a star who can really act, like, say Leonardo Di Caprio, the sky would be the limit.