Over the past few years, Liam Neeson has established himself as one of the most compelling American action heroes, and understandably so. His gruff persona combined with his commanding physical presence not only makes him a riveting protagonist for explosive contemporary thrillers, but an extremely credible one as well. Whether he’s hunting down his daughter’s kidnappers in "Taken," or fighting off a pack of wolves in "The Grey," Neeson is electrifying through his portrayals of men who are conflicted by a dark past that they must overcome in order to carry out one final task.
In "Non-Stop," Neeson continues his streak of playing haunted, worn-down survivalists as Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal who, in the midst of a flight, receives an ominous text message from an unknown sender stating that if he does not transfer one hundred and fifty million dollars into a specified account, they will kill one passenger every twenty minutes on board the aircraft he’s serving to protect. Sent into severe stages of panic and paranoia, Marks becomes convinced that the threat is real, making a relentless attempt to keep everyone safe, even as it results in everyone perceiving him to be a potential hijacker.
The premise of the film is ludicrous, of course, but based on Neeson’s most recent track record, that’s to be expected. I doubt that anyone going to see this picture will expect precise forms of logic when it comes to how Marks will attempt to save the day, and for about two-thirds of its runtime, "Non-Stop" is a surprisingly entertaining piece of cinematic schlock. Neeson’s fully committed performance anchors the silliness of the plot with an endearing sense of grit and determination, making the film compulsively watchable even as it delves into a variety of clichés and red-herrings that are incorporated into solving the big "whodunit" mystery.
That being said, there’s only so much rationality that can be left at the door, and unfortunately, "Non-Stop" abuses the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief during its final act, resulting in a conclusion that’s so incoherent and shockingly offensive in terms of its heavy-handed commentary on living within a post-9/11 world, that it makes you ashamed of going along for the ride in the first place.
I’m not faulting the film for its plot-holes or for teasing viewers by swarming them with false clues (although I can comprehend why someone would criticize it for these factors). I’m faulting it for its exploitative tactics used to convey the antagonist’s "message" during the big reveal. It’s not just that their motivation is absurd beyond any form of rationality; it’s downright hypocritical, declaring a sense of self-importance that betrays the campy tone of its first hour while also attempting to persuade viewers of some provocative theme at the heart of the story that rings completely false.
A flaw of this magnitude unfortunately is also a defining factor in determining how much the viewer is willing to overlook in terms of giving the film a free pass in other flimsy aspects of its production. The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously collaborated with Neeson for his previous film "Unknown," doesn’t have any distinctive form of style, filming many of the action sequences without any flair or idiosyncratic qualities. On top of that, many scenes of violence, particularly hand-to-hand combat, are edited in such a choppy fashion, making it difficult to interpret what is playing out on-screen at times.
In terms of the film’s supporting players, none of them add up to anything thematically substantial, and most of them are used as stock figures in order to keep the film moving from one plot point to the next. Apart from the woman who happens to end up in the seat right next to Marks’ named Jen Summers (the always-wonderful Julianne Moore), a majority of these characters feel a lot more like caricatures. That’s too bad, especially considering that the film has a talented cast, including recent Oscar-nominee Lupita N’yongo ("12 Years a Slave") who’s completely wasted as a flight-attendant devoid of any personality whatsoever.
Sure, a good chunk of "Non-Stop" is rife with guilty pleasure moments, which mainly stem from Neeson’s gritty, sometimes hilariously intense performance, but by concluding on such a wildly miscalculated note, the sour aftertaste of its resolution spoils whatever sense of trashy fun came before. It’s like enjoying a meal from a fast-food restaurant only to have it result in food poisoning; what’s the point of enjoying a deliciously cheap product if it only results in feeling sick afterwards?