If, as “The Usual Suspects” taught us, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist, it’s worth pointing out that one of the greatest tricks of “Non-Stop” is the villain’s skill in making the hero look like the bad guy.
It’s February, which means it’s time to watch Liam Neeson beat the stuffing out of some villains. This time around, Neeson plays Bill Marks, a tortured, boozy air marshal who’s being played by a cunning nemesis, one who’s doing everything possible to make it seem as though Bill is the one who’s actually hijacking the plane, and not the guy who is really trying to save the day.
The screenplay by first-timers John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle may bite off more than it can chew, but for most of its flight time, “Non-Stop” is a cheesy delight, down to its improbable plot twists and the inevitable appearance of a red LED display showing how long Bill has to rescue passengers and crew before everything goes kablooey.
Neeson reteams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a movie that makes a teensy bit more sense than their previous collaboration, “Unknown,” while amping the excitement and giddy entertainment factor up by 11. Given that the movie is stuck inside the confines of a jet flying from New York to London, this is basically a variant on the locked-room/haunted house whodunit, with a stealth killer and a suspicious briefcase taking the place of one of Agatha Christie’s murderous vicars.
With a cast this strong, however, the implausibilities go down easier, since Neeson is apparently flying the friendly skies of Character Actor Airlines, with lots of red-herring supporting players to keep us suspicious. Could our mystery assailant be one of the flight attendants (played by Michelle Dockery, aka Lady Mary of “Downton Abbey,” and Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o)? What about the nice lady (Julianne Moore) in First Class with the surgery scar and the kind words for a nervous-about-flying Bill?
Maybe it’s the hot-headed NYPD cop (Corey Stoll), or the babbling tourist (Scoot McNairy) or the brusque business commuter (Nate Parker) or even the grumpy co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner)? The possibilities are seemingly endless, which is of no help to Bill, since his mysterious antagonist is making good on his threat to kill a passenger every 20 minutes, even within the airtight space.
After a movie like “Pompeii,” in which a bunch of cardboard cut-outs get swept up in a sea of lava, it’s refreshing to see a shameless genre movie that at least bothers to write characters (and cast them well) so they make a bare minimum of an impression, letting us know who they are (or at least who they’re pretending to be) so they can be active participants in a relatively-complicated plot.
The cast does lots of heavy lifting to put everything in place; there’s a key speech late in the film that turns the whole movie around, and it’s hard to imagine it working in the hands of anyone who lacks Neeson’s oratorical skills.
There may be a lack of surprise if only because “Liam Neeson action movie” has become a formula unto itself, and we always know how they’re going to wind up. (Unless he’s battling wolves, of course, but that’s another story.) Even with that in mind, however, “Non-Stop” keeps plenty of jolts and surprises in its overhead compartment.