At 61, Liam Neeson should be kicking back and enjoying the benefits of AARP membership (e.g., senior citizen discounts), not starring in a highly lucrative series of crowd-pleasing thrillers as a late middle-aged action hero. It wasn’t always that way, of course. As with any actor, aging can – and often does – limit the number and types of roles available to him (it’s worse for women than men, though that should go without saying). With serious dramatic roles apparently in short supply, Neeson – either on a lark, to fill a sizable hole in his schedule, or collect a paycheck – agreed to star in what could be described as a “Luc Besson Special,” Taken, a European-set action-thriller Besson co-wrote and produced, but didn’t direct. Almost overnight, Neeson improbably became bankable as an action hero. Roles of varying quality and box-office performance followed, including the Jaume Collet-Serra-directed (Unknown, Orphan, House of Wax), an underwhelming attempt to repeat the Taken formula.
When we first meet Neeson’s character in Non-Stop, the generically named William “Bill” Marks, he’s sitting in an airport parking lot, looking wistfully at a photo of a young girl – presumably his daughter – and filling a coffee cup with whiskey (in slow motion, no less). It’s one of many narrative shortcuts or cheats in a screenplay credited to John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle (and who knows how many uncredited writers), a signal to the audience that Marks is a troubled man, haunted perhaps by a failed marriage and a strained relationship with his daughter. We soon learn, however, that he’s also a U.S. Marshal, permanently loaned out to the fictional Aqualantic Airlines to fly all over the world to protect passengers – not to mention their billion-dollar airplanes – from terrorist hijackers. Laws allow Marks to carry a firearm. He’s also equipped with a smartphone and access to a private, supposedly secure network he can use to communicate with his superiors and vice versa.
Marks boards the New York to London flight expect more of the same: semi-comfortable seating in first/business class and boredom for the six-hour flight. Instead, he becomes the center of an attempt to extort $150 million dollars (a million for every passenger, crew excluded) from Aqualantic Airlines. At first, Marks thinks the texts he’s receiving are simply pranks, but when a threat come true and a passenger ends up dead, he realizes it’s not a prank. Given his history as an alcoholic and otherwise unstable man (why he’s still an active U.S. Marshal is a question Non-Stop never bothers to answer), the crew and his on-the-ground contact, are slow to believe him. When a second murder occurs on the flight, the crew makes a 180-degree turn, but by then, the hijackers have turned Marks into suspect No. 1, thanks (or rather no thanks) due to the account where they want the $150 million wired (it’s in Marks’ name).
To keep the tension tight and the suspense at a steady pitch, the script singles out one passenger after another as the potential hijacker. Even an early ally, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), the woman sharing Marks’ aisle and the obligatory romantic interest (age appropriate, for once), eventually comes under suspicion. Marks’ increasingly frayed, violent response, including the rough handling of a schoolteacher, Tom Bowen (Scoot McNairy), he encountered outside the airport, wins him no fans among the crew and passengers. Other passengers/suspects include Austin Reilly (Corey Stoll), a NYPD police officer (or so he claims), Zack White (Nate Parker), a computer programmer flying to London for a job interview, Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally), a scientist and the most obvious of obvious red herrings (he’s a Muslim), Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), a sleaziness-oozing businessman, David McMillan (Linus Roache), Nancy (Michelle Dockery), the chief flight attendant, and Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o), a new-to-the-crew flight attendant.
To Collet-Serra and the screenwriting team’s credit (considerable or otherwise, depending on your tolerance level and how far you’re willing to suspend disbelief to indulge escapist entertainment), Non-Stop (mostly) remains true to the title, rapidly moving from one incident or complication to another with minimal downtime, key to keeping moviegoers engaged and not asking questions about the mounting implausibilities, improbabilities, and logic-challenged developments contained in the script. The hijacker’s plan depends not just on Marks being on the flight, but making a series of snap-judgment decisions that consistently make things worse for him and the crew. It also depends on Marks’ making the right (or wrong) call on who to trust and who to help him. The hijacker also has to not just know about Marks’ personal and professional problems, but anticipate his every move and counter-move once he (or she) has revealed the hijack plot to Marks.
Unfortunately, the welcome tautness of the first and second acts gives away to a Big Reveal so wrong-footed and so misguided that it threatens to completely undermine the goodwill Non-Stop earned during the earlier acts. When, inevitably, the hijacker offers up his monologue for what he’s doing and why he’s doing, including why he targeted Marks and not another U.S. Marshall, Non-Stop stumbles badly, recovering only once the action picks up again over the last few minutes. Not, of course, that there’s anything intrinsically or inherently wrong with attempting to give mainstream entertainment some real-world relevance (see, for a counter-example, the recent RoboCop remake), but it shouldn’t be an afterthought thrown in at the last minute to goose the audience into thinking about anything except the life-or-death issues of the fictional characters.