No one beats the living hell out of bad guys so thoroughly enjoyably on screen as Liam Neeson. It makes no sense, but there it is.
The rebirth of dopey rom-com king Matthew McConaughey into a respected, serious, award-winning actor (coined the McConaissance) barely warrants a shrug compared to the guilty fascination of Neeson’s late-career transformation into an action star. Name one other living action hero that has a resumé that includes roles as Jean Valjean and Oskar Schindler.
A lot of people will pay to see Non-Stop expecting the kind of action movie that Neeson, who is now 61, has become famous for in the past few years (such as Taken and The Grey.) They, however, will be disappointed. Despite what the traditional action-thriller trailer would have you think, Non-Stop isn’t really an action movie. It’s a Hitchcockian murder-mystery thriller for the post-9/11 era.
Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal with a troubled personal life, first hinted at when he’s shown thumbing a bottle of booze before boarding a transatlantic flight.
Once he’s settled in his seat, he receives a text message saying that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless $150-million is deposited into a bank account. Who’s sending the messages? Is it the Muslim doctor? The mysterious woman played by Julianne Moore? What about the school teacher who was asking Marks questions back at the airport?
More importantly, why aren’t we watching Neeson wreak vengeance on some stereotypically cast (if politically incorrect) villain? It was pure gold in Taken, Taken 2 and The Grey. At least let the guy punch out a wolf or two just to get the blood lust running.
Here, though, the battles are mostly psychological. Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a fine job of establishing an atmosphere where everyone is a suspect, an essential element for this kind of close-quarters whodunit. Many of the passengers begin to suspect that Marks is the villain.
Neeson and Collet-Serra played similar mind games in their previous outing, Unknown. There, Neeson played a man who wakes from a coma to discover his identity has been stolen and who must fend off assassins while proving he is who he says he is. It wasn’t the kind of action movie that gets audiences worked up into a howling lather. Neither is Non-Stop. But it does have the same B-movie, over-the-top appeal that Neeson is able to elevate.
It’s unfair to judge Non-Stop as one of the Liam Neeson exploitation movies audiences have come to love. (The subgenre has been dubbed “Neesploitation.”) Nor is it fair to say the main problem with Non-Stop is that its plot is so improbable. There was lots of “improbable” in Taken, but that movie was awesome, bone-crushing fun.
The problem is that Non-Stop tries to be something it’s not. It has one too many scenes that border on ludicrous, and the big reveal barely makes sense. If you want to watch Liam Neeson play Agatha Christie with a cellphone, have at it. Me, I’m waiting for Taken 3.