Whether it’s rescuing kidnapped daughters in Paris or punching wolves in the middle of nowhere, screenwriters have been diligently coming up with new reasons for Liam Neeson to clench his fists in a succession of action movies and thrillers. Along with Jason Statham, Neeson’s become a true 21st century action hero, in the sense that he assumes different names in each film, but really, we all know he’s good old Liam Neeson.
In Non-Stop, he plays Bill Marks, a depressive United States air marshal who drinks and smokes a lot. During a routine overnight flight from New York to London, he begins to receive a series of menacing texts from an anonymous passenger. “Are you ready to do your duty?” asks one. Another could easily be the strap line for every Neeson action thriller recently made: “How far would you go to save these people?”
With the plane cruising over the mid-Atlantic, Marks has the unenviable task of either doing as the criminal asks – that is, convince his superiors to hand over $150m before a passenger is killed – or trying to stop them before it’s too late.
Non-Stop sees Neeson reteam with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, and this is a far more satisfying effort than their previous collaboration, Unknown, which started off well but lost its way somewhere in the middle. Recalling those old Airport thrillers, or the underrated Wes Craven genre entry Red Eye, Non-Stop introduces its passengers one by one, disaster movie or whodunnit style, giving Bill Marks – and us – reasons to be suspicious of each and every one of them.
The supporting cast includes Julianne Moore as Marks’ radiant single-serving friend, Linus Roache as a co-pilot, Anson Mount as a fellow air marshal, 12 Years A Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o as a hostess, and Monsters’ Scoot McNairy as one of several nervy passengers.
Between them, Collet-Serra and screenwriters John W Richardson and Christopher Roach keep the story moving at a gallop, with potentially tedious SMS exchanges splashed up on the screen like Benedict Cumberbatch’s thought processes in Sherlock. Unlike most thrillers – the disappointing, plane-based Flight Plan springs to mind – Non-Stop doesn’t simply latch onto one idea and stick with it for the duration of the movie. The threat keeps changing and escalating, as Marks’ suspicions fall on one passenger and then another.
It would be more than a stretch to say that Non-Stop is a believable thriller, but it takes a ‘frog in a pan of slowly heating water’ approach, in that the level of absurdity creeps up so slowly that you don’t necessarily notice how daft everything is until events have spiralled gloriously out of control. Although the script is hardly award-winning material – and some of the dialogue is wince-inducingly on-the-nose – it’s entertaining without drifting into Snakes On A Plane-like self-parody.
Neeson gets up to a bit of the bone-crunching fisticuffs that proved a hit in Taken, but Non-Stop is more about suspense than action. It touches on a nerve still raw even 13 years after the tragic events of 9-11; the pressure-cooker sense of unease and distrust that permeates air port security line-ups and continues into every flight – a repressed paranoia that only needs a gentle nudge to come bursting out into full view.
Non-Stop flirts with these fears, but does so in a glossy thriller format where both writer and director remind us that it’s okay to have fun – a scene featuring the memorable line “Free international travel!” is a particularly enjoyable one.
Non-Stop isn’t a classic thriller, but as an inconsequential night out at the pictures, it is an awful lot of fun. The unfussy, snappy direction helps, along with a few dollops of crunchy sound design that make the few flashes of action seem a lot more brutal than they are. But really, the hero of the piece is Neeson. Like a good commercial pilot, he brings Non-Stop into land with charisma, cool assurance and more than a touch of class.
Non-Stop is out on the 28th February in the UK.
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