In Non-Stop Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, a sad-sack U.S. air marshal who takes a non-stop transcontinental flight to London, only to wind up embroiled in a bizarre terrorist incident. Upon takeoff, Marks receives a text message from an unseen antagonist promising that he/she will kill a passenger every twenty minutes, unless Marks comes up with a way to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to a specific bank account.
When the threat turns out to be credible, Marks finds himself in the middle of a deadly game on a short play clock. However, the more he tries to get to the heart of the matter, the more Bill Marks begins to sink deeper into a carefully-orchestrated scheme that could cost the lives of all his passengers – and so much more than that.
Right from the premise of its story, Non-Stop is a risky proposition: single-setting thriller in one of the most constricted public spaces imaginable (a commercial airliner); a flimsy device (pun intended) driving the plot (in this case, text messaging); with a running clock hanging over it all. However, in spite of the fact that the movie basically hits just about every one of the most obvious cliches and logic gaps you likely imagined it would, the Liam Neeson action-star brand (with some additional aid from talented co-stars) provides enough fuel to power Non-Stop through to its final destination.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is best known for adding a bit of extra flair to B-movie material like House of Wax (2005), Orphan – and of course Unknown, his previous pairing with Liam Neeson. Non-Stop hovers at the same altitude as most of Collet-Serra’s other work: more entertaining than expected, cleverly and stylishly executed in many respects, but found to be gliding on fumes when broken down in serious examination.
On a directorial front, Non-Stop uses tight framing and smart blocking to make the most out of its setting, utilizing the constricted space as an advantageous way of limiting the audience’s ability to scrutinize the shot. The cinematic trickery isn’t enough to completely save the film from a pile of logistical baggage (“How did nobody hear/see that?” “Wouldn’t you be able to spot that easily?”) but it is enough to keep things interesting and urgent from moment to moment, as both Marks and the audience try to grasp the parlor tricks being done by magicians that seem to be lurking just out of frame. The cinematography is gritty and vivid and looks much better than the actual material its servicing – which is pretty much Collet-Serra’s calling card: B-movies with A-movie production values.
Screenplay/story writers John W. Richardson, Ryan Engle and Christopher Roach are all newcomers to the feature-film writing game (Richardson and Roach are reality TV editors, and Engle is just getting into some big film projects). While the trio manage to create a tightly-paced thrill ride and manage to juggle many of the plot points they toss into the air with reasonable dexterity, the lack of experience shows in the in the by-the-numbers turns of the plot and turbulent sections of broken logic that they attempt to coast through by tossing up a new development and/or red herring to distract the eye and mind.
The final twists and reveals are a messy affair, well-played by the cast but riddled with so many logical holes – weighted down by heavy-handed pontification – it ends up being a wonder that the story’s cabin pressure held as long as it did. On paper, this movie plunges into free-fall and never pulls out of it, but luckily Collet-Serra and his cast provide a parachute of mindless thrill-genre entertainment to cushion the narrative crash.
Liam Neeson has become the sort of unlikely action star that Jason Statham was in his pre-Transporter days. Seeing a tall, gruff man shove passengers back and forth across a plane while yelling at and/or interrogate them should grow tiresome and ridiculous after about the first twenty minutes, but Neeson’s no-nonsense fatherly swagger (the heart of the Taken franchise) makes it work, and keeps the Irish actor in the control of the film instead of letting his talented lineup of co-stars walk away with each scene. Indeed, much of Non-Stop only functions as a vehicle for Neeson-brand entertainment, but the important part is that with the right leading man in place, it does fly.