Silver Screen: Non-Stop ***1/2
As the fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroes trend continues to dominate blockbuster season, more straightforward shoot ‘em ups have been increasingly given over to an aging class of actor. In Lethal Weapon, Danny Glover famously quipped, “I’m too old for this shit,” but nowadays you need to flash an AARP card to get the starring role in an old-school thriller.
Liam Neeson is the grand old man of the Geriaction movie. While former heavyweights Stallone and Schwarzenegger look like they’re trying to recapture old glory, Neeson makes for a convincing bruiser who brings gravitas to otherwise throwaway movies. His latest, Non-Stop, is one of his most effective and entertaining thrillers yet. It’s a locked-room mystery— or rather a locked-airplane mystery— that can only be solved by rolling up the sleeves and getting a few gray hairs out of place.
Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a disgraced police officer turned hard-drinking Air Marshal, and not a particularly good one. Marks hates to fly, drinks on the job, and smokes in the first-class bathroom. He’s barely upright, much like his seatback and tray table during takeoff and landing.
While on a transatlantic flight from London to the United States, Marks receives a troubling text message on his work phone: If $150 million isn’t wired into a designated bank account, someone on the plane will die in twenty minutes. Marks thinks it’s a hoax until his fellow Air Marshal (Hell on Wheels’ Anson Mount) starts acting suspiciously and, exactly twenty minutes later, someone winds up dead. Marks must keep the situation in the passenger cabin under control and determine the identity of the killer even as doubt is cast on his own role in the murder, and a group of passengers begin to suspect him of going rogue to hijack the flight himself.
Non-Stop is streamlined, fast-paced, and only preposterous if you think about it much— and spending too much time thinking about it is preposterous indeed. It’s a trifle, but a smartly crafted one that evolves organically from mystery to claustrophobic thriller to gleefully outlandish disaster mayhem.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has teamed with Neeson once previously, in the passable but forgettable Unknown. This is a much more successful outing, with crisp, clearly defined action and a more compelling central mystery that plays like a testosterone-amped Agatha Christie story. Collet-Serra does a nice job of keeping track of all the potential suspects and deftly working in some red herrings. Julianne Moore plays a helpful woman sitting in the seat next to Neeson... but is she conspicuously helpful? House of Cards’ Corey Stoll claims to be a cop rallying passengers back in coach, but what do we really know about his qualifications? The only person who seems certain not to be the culprit is the Middle Eastern doctor decked out in observant religious attire, whose innocence is preordained by both the laws of narrative convention and political correctness.
If you figure out the real identity of the hijacker before Marks does, it’s probably because you, unlike him, have an excellent working knowledge of character actors. Too often the culprit in these movies is the most famous actor who seems to have no other significant reason to be present. Collet-Serra at least hides his killer among a fantastic group of supporting players that includes not only Stoll and Mount but also Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, recent Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Shea Whigham, and A-list dirtbag Scoot McNairy.
Neeson remains astonishingly credible as an action hero at the age of sixty-two. Sure, the guy who played Oskar Schindler is capable of doing more than gunning down terrorists, but don’t we all want to know the answer to the question, “If he’s this much more intimidating at sixty-two than fifty-two, how badass will he be at eighty when he films Taken XIII?”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.