by Philip Price
With what has become somewhat of an annual or biennial tradition, we all wait with eager anticipation to see what type of fun, B-movie situation Liam Neeson is going to get himself into next after transcending the lines of the serious and prestigious realm of actors to become nothing short of everyone's favorite action hero in early 2009. Not only did “Taken” mark a change in pace for Neeson though, but it was the first time, in a long time, that it really felt everyone was on board with a movie and that it had all the parts to please everyone no matter what demographic you fell into or what genre you enjoyed the most. Neeson was there for the serious film-goers, the action was there for the male and younger crowds while the storyline concerning a kidnapped child put the older sets in a "what would you do" type situation that was all-around engaging and was simply the perfect storm of elements that made agreeing on Taken an easy thing to do, a wagon we could all jump on and not feel bad for doing so. While Neeson has seemingly embraced this new-found identity as he has translated it into some fun (“Unkown”), some poignant (“The Grey”) and some not so great (“Taken 2”) experiences that show no signs of slowing and with “Non-Stop” he may have made his most middle of the road, yet still fascinatingly interesting B-movie to date. There is a sense of something a little extra here, an element not necessarily present in what would be considered your typical first quarter release, but something that heightens not just the quality of the overall picture but the experience it entails and if “Non-Stop” has anything going for it more than the fact it fits squarely into Neeson's new catalogue is the experience it offers the first time around. It is one of those tightly structured, elaborately plotted thrillers that consistently dares the audience to get in on the game of who is behind it all and this one in particular happens to be extremely satisfying in its execution while giving its justification more weight than we might expect, turning what could have easily been this brainless, exploitation flick into something that might make Hitchcock proud, or at least allow him to have a good time watching it. “Non-Stop” may not be something that will endure, but in that moment, in that present as you first experience the story unfold it is nothing short of guilt-free fun.
We are introduced to Bill Marks (Neeson) in the first frame, stirring his alcoholic beverage around with his tooth brush as he sits, waiting in his car. He gets out only to encounter an interesting set of individuals as he makes his way through an airport and onto the transatlantic flight where he will serve as the U.S. Air Marshal. He helps a young girl who is traveling alone on a plan for the first time overcome her fears, letting us know that despite his apparent drinking problem he is a good guy at heart. He winds up sitting next to Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) a woman keen on getting the window seat who engages Marks in conversation to keep him calm during takeoff and generally seems interested in his life (maybe a little too much?). The action, or should I say complexities, really kick-in when Marks begins receiving text messages from an anonymous fellow passenger threatening to kill someone every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into a designated account. There are countless other characters here designed to be misleading and/or distracting from what eventually comes to be understood, but they are done with such a natural approach, a way of recognizing what you are seeing and knowing it's a possibility, but not knowing if the filmmakers are messing with you or if they really want you to buy into it. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also directed Neeson in “Unknown”) plays this hand well, keeping the audience in tune with the fact that we should never actually doubt Neeson's character despite the plot point given away in the trailer that the designated bank account in which the ransom money is to be transferred has Marks name on it. We don't doubt Neeson's air marshal, but we are inclined to believe it could be any one of the strategically cast members that make up the remainder of the passengers and crew. Scoot McNairy with his squirmy demeanor, Corey Stoll with his stoic presence and suspicious eyebrows, Omar Metwally as the obligatory Muslim, Nate Parker who has early run-ins with Marks making the tension between them immediately heightened or even the trusted stewardess Nancy (Michelle Dockery) who is more than willing to help, but is she over-compensating? The list could go on, but the fun is in the game of Clue and figuring out whodunit and where they're hiding while discussing the how as you leave the theater.
The sentence above which includes the phrase "strategically cast" is a key factor for how successful “Non-Stop” turned out to be and I was happy to see that none of the marketing for the film was keen to hint at what the actual outcome of the film was. If anything, the trailer pushed for us to suspect Moore's character (that shot of her in the trailer with thick, black-rimmed glasses on staring suspiciously to the right was meant to do nothing but incite some type of expectation in our minds) and I'm not saying that it isn't her as much as I'm not going to say what her role in the film ultimately amounts to. Each of the above mentioned casting choices could mean something though none of them make for an obvious villain while their inherent credibility adds a fair amount of gravitas to the proceedings that are necessary for audiences to be truly confused while also making the film feel fuller. What makes something like “Non-Stop” truly successful as far as operating within its constraints though is how easy it appeals to those looking for what the movies are first and foremost meant to offer: an escape. The simple premise of putting Liam Neeson in a plane where someone is threatening to kill someone else every twenty minutes is easily understood and inserts us quickly into the action and keeps things rolling while not getting caught up in itself or its innovation to the point audience members are lost along the way. "How do you kill someone in a crowded plane and get away with it?" This question posed by the captain of the airplane (Linus Roache) is what serves as the films tagline and that idea and the many ways in which you could spawn a story from that point are taken and run with by first time screenwriters John Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle. I can only imagine the sessions these three might have had with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth as to how they might not only fool the audience into looking for indications in all the wrong places, but about how to bring things home with a strong point, a reason with substance that might resonate with people in the audience and bring this obvious genre picture into something more than popcorn entertainment, but that of a stimulating or provoking thought that gives reason for interesting conversation buried under the revelations of who guessed the conclusion correctly.
As for Neeson himself, the now 61 year old actor is more intimidating than ever. His rough Irish growl was the highlight of that ingenious marketing campaign that led “Taken” to truly be successful and launch the actor into the stratosphere he currently resides in and it continues to serve him well especially in the latter scenes of “Non-Stop” where he is forced to throw all inhibitions aside and simply take-on the threat head-first. Neeson is not so much acting here as he was in say “The Grey” where he truly found something that likely resonated with that point of his life and his state of being as he is more going through the motions here, but Neeson is what people will flock to this movie to for and for his presence alone. He is a late-blooming action star, but someone we for some reason find extremely exciting to watch kick ass and take names. There isn't as much of the kicking ass as you might have expected in “Non-Stop” especially since that is obviously what they wanted to market it as, but the pure intrigue of the premise and the exciting ways in which something like this could go are more than enough to sustain audiences looking for that next chapter in Neeson's career-resurgence. I wasn't expecting much from this film as “Unknown” is one of my lesser favorites of these Neeson in leading action role films that he's made over the past few years (though it still ranks well above “Taken 2”) but I enjoyed him in the criminally underrated “A-Team” and his contributions to the ‘Clash/Wrath of the Titans’ franchise are easily among the best moments of those films. With “Non-Stop” he has combined elements from each to make something easy and accessible such as the “Taken” flicks, something with a fun game within the narrative that questions the audience (“Unknown”) and a culmination of events that offers something more substantial than simply overcoming the bad guys who want more money than they'd know what to do with but don't stand a chance in hell of actually getting away with it (“The Grey,” I guess). In short, and what I've actually been trying to say this entire review is that “Non-Stop” is a happy medium of everything Neeson has been dipping his toes in with this late career-run as an action star and for that, the film deserves to be seen if not for the entertainment value it provides but because it is really a solid thriller dressed in B-movie clothing.