DIR: Jaume Collet-Serra • WRI: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach • Ryan Engle PRO: Alex Heineman, Andrew Rona, Joel Silver • DOP: Flavio Martínez Labiano • ED: Jim May • MUS: John Ottman • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o
In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, an Irish-American air marshal with a dark past and a drinking problem. (Standard – one wonders if it’s possible to get a career in the defensive forces without a tragic history.) While on board a long-haul New York/London flight, he receives a series of taunting texts from a mysterious stranger threatening to murder a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited in a bank account. His aggressive approach to preventing this puts him at odds with the passengers, crew, and TSA; and when the bank account is revealed to be in his own name, Marks is branded a hijacker. Stripped of his badge and gun (‘duty-free’?) and unsure who to trust, Marks must clear his name and get the passengers back on side before the real threat comes to an explosive climax.
Certain stylistic features of this film work very well. The appearance of speech bubbles on screen to show a text message is a device becoming popular since its use in such television series as Sherlock and House of Cards. Director Jaume Collet-Serra takes this further, projecting the flickering screen of a shattered phone and highlighted auto-fills as Marks types (though unfortunately for the film’s humour content, no auto-correct slip-ups), validating the use of text messages as a form of narrative delivery within a film. Similarly, the claustrophobic setting of the plane is well-captured – probably no doubt helped by Neeson’s hulking frame dominating the tiny space.
The film deals in some potentially rich themes here, too, with the gradual turn against Marks by everyone else involved with the flight. The difference between a state of hijacking and a state of emergency, and the threat to civil liberties through deference and compliance to perceived authority, is ripe for exploration. Unfortunately it’s treated with all the intelligence and subtlety as a fire extinguisher to the back of the head.
In terms of its plot, it would be unfair to call Non-Stop a Non-Starter – the initial premise is intriguing, menacing, and vaguely Hitchcockian in its ambitions. Call it ‘Strangers on a Plane.’ Yet somewhere along the line the low-key approach is completely abandoned in favour of toilet-based kung-fu, a sophisticated bomb concealed in cocaine, and television news channels streaming live onboard, asking of possible-hijacker Marks, ‘how do we know he’s NOT IRA?’ A certain suspension of disbelief is always required with any action caper, but halfway through it seems that the film is aware of this audience pre-disposition and shamelessly takes advantage.
With that in mind, those who enjoy Neeson’s latter-day action movie superstar mode will doubtless find much to enjoy here, with a number of well-choreographed fight scenes at 30,000 feet causing plenty of turbulence. Neeson is a great action star – his broad build, stern Roman features, and emotional range are perfectly suited to this genre. Along with fighting three men at once, he acts the hell out of looking at a phone, and has great chemistry with co-star Julianne Moore. He may be trying to save 150 people on board the plane, but Non-Stop takes a narrative nosedive in its third act that not even Liam Neeson can put right. The resolution to the whodunnit feels like a cheat, as does the motivation given for compromising the plane. The descent into cliché gathers so much speed that it crashes horribly close to parody; and the cheerful Hollywood ending fails to reconcile a number of loose ends about Marks’ no-doubt partially-disturbed mental state that doesn’t convince me he’ll come out the other side of this journey any better off. (Especially considering current exchange rates.)
A great mystery it’s not, and the frenzied, preposterous conclusion might be more ‘non, stop’ than ‘non-stop,’ but fans of Liam Neeson hunting, finding, and killing his man will certainly get more than enough of that. Fasten your seat-belts, it’s a bumpy ride.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Non-Stop is released on 28th February 2014