Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
A gruff, unenthused man questions a smaller fellow with slicked-back hair and obvious agitation in his responses. As the confrontation grows more violent, it moves away from the other passengers to the plane’s cramped lavatory. The two men struggle, arms tangled, hands at each other’s necks and reaching for their weapons, both unwilling to be the loser.
“Non-Stop,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, follows federal air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) and his 150 passengers as they ascend 40,000 feet into the air on a direct flight from New York to London. Special Agent Marks is a surly, boozy and jaded character, with a regretful past and that leaves him alone with nothing to lose. He is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of the plane’s passengers, a trait that makes him the perfect target for an unseen mastermind’s diabolical plot.
Mid-way over the Atlantic, Marks receives text messages from an anonymous communicator threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless 150 million dollars is wired to an offshore account. Attempts by Marks to work with his TSA supervisors to procure the money prove fruitless, especially when a complicating factor is revealed: The offshore account is in Marks’ name, making him the prime suspect in a hijacking scenario. When the aircraft proves to be in real danger, Marks must race against the clock to oust the perpetrator before time runs out for everyone on board.
The film is set up like a classic whodunit, holding the audience captive with its drawn-out suspense. A seemingly endless trail of red herrings keeps filmgoers guessing as a host of characters and suspects are introduced: the confrontational cop, Austin Reilly (Corey Stoll); straight-faced British flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery); and tech-savvy Zack White (Nate Parker), among others. The elusive Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), a red-haired enigma, insists on the window seat though she barely spends any time sitting in it, drawing suspicion to herself. Soon, the not-so-obvious culprits begin to seem too obvious, leaving the audience in doubt until the great reveal.
The film never lulls in the presence of Neeson, the quintessential action star with his brooding, Irish, “bad cop” persona. His character bleeds vulnerability in a way that is almost too stereotypical: He has no family, no friends and a biting addiction to alcohol. Neeson’s character even brings duct tape aboard so he can smoke cigarettes in the airplane lavatory. But his grizzly exterior is no facade. Hardened by years as a New York Police Department officer, a tumultuous marriage and his daughter’s death, Marks has every reason to dislike society. However, avoiding a cliched disposition, Neeson brings greater depth to his character, creating a man who, instead of choosing to inflict his own melancholy on others, seeks repentance through his guardianship of them.
Collet-Serra does a masterful job in maintaining suspense in a confined space. However, the final act deflates the promising climactic build-up when the villains instigate their own demise. Additionally, the implausibilities of this in-flight scenario seem to serve as convenient coincidences. The endless texting, YouTube and live-television capabilities — all crucial to the progression of the storyline — throw up red flags. Perhaps these inaccuracies can be ignored for the sake of plot, but they contribute to a lessened sense of believability.
Though the payoff seems a bit underwhelming, “Non-Stop” does deliver stellar performances by Neeson and an ensemble of appropriately shifty characters, taking audiences for an admittedly short-lived thrill ride.