A few years back Liam Neeson starred in the wildly successful thriller “Taken.” Ever since his career has been on the kind of epic trajectory usually reserved for actors half his age. Now he’s become the patron saint of winter thrillers. Annually, we get a variation on the theme. Neeson plays some kind of blue-collar, hard-luck case, forced into a series of events that require him to employ a certain set of skills in order to save the day.
For the most part, these movies have been better than average. “Taken” is a great guilty pleasure. “Unknown” is a by-the-numbers Hitchcock photocopy. “The Grey” is a wonderful piece of survival nihilism. “Non-Stop” joins these films as a “just better than average” thriller, featuring some very familiar elements.
The movie itself is a fun potboiler about a killer hiding in plain sight on a transatlantic flight. Neeson is the air marshal who has to stop the killer before the plane goes kablooey. Like most of Neeson’s output, it’s fun and tense. He’s such a likable guy. Even though his character is pretty much the same guy in every movie, audiences still end up rooting for him when the chips are down.
Speaking of, I got a little hung up on the generic characterization. There are similarities in back story that feel recycled from Neeson’s past films. In “Taken” he was a former military specialist turned freelance security guard. In “Non-Stop” he’s a former New York City policeman turned air marshal. In “The Grey,” he lost his wife, which turned him into a functioning alcoholic, losing the will to live.
In “Non-Stop” he lost his daughter to cancer. Again he turned into a functioning alcoholic who has lost the will to live. It’s probably not worth wasting brain cells on—and, honestly, it’s more fun if you pretend it’s the same guy in every movie. Liam Neeson has become John McClane a la “Die Hard” and continues to wind up in one wacky scenario after the next.
“Non-Stop” is the kind of movie that takes a very simple concept and effectively executes on it for 90 minutes. It’s grand and kind of silly like other films of its ilk: “Airport,” “Passenger 57,” “Executive Decision,” “Air Force One,” “Snakes on a Plane,” etc. The idea of a thriller set on a plane is hardly a new idea. It’s economical and generates a high level of discomfort. Very few people are particularly fond of flying. The whole experience from check-in, to invasive security pat-downs, to neurotic screwballs you have to sit next to. “Non-Stop” gets a lot of mileage from the hellish landscape of modern air travel.
While on his flight, Neeson’s air marshal gets a text message informing him that every 20 minutes, someone will die unless $150 million is wired to an international account. Neeson has to try and unravel a mystery in 20-minute spans as passengers and crew members begin to die. The simple cat-and-mouse game becomes infinitely more complicated as accusations of his involvement in the plot come to the surface. His checked past and struggles with addiction make him the perfect candidate to orchestrate a transatlantic cash-grab.
There are enough twists and turns to keep “Non-Stop” interesting. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with a plucky spirit and game cast who has a lot of fun with the premise. “Non-Stop” isn’t groundbreaking, but damn it all, it’s fun. Neeson continues to elevate some pedestrian material into something watchable. I doubt I’ll feel this way forever; eventually, this model will fall apart. The decals will peel off and the glue will lose its tackiness.
No matter how much we love Liam Neeson, he’s basically relegated himself to roles that seem suited for Steven Seagal. For now though, the shtick is still entertaining. Neeson is still a likable leading man, and the movie has enough polish to prevent it from descending into a flaming pile of fuselage. It does feel like Neeson is carrying these movies. With every passing year, he gets a little older, and it becomes a little more difficult to buy into the idea of a senior citizen kicking ass and taking names. There’s still a little more shine on this aging model.
“Non-Stop” is a well-executed thriller that strains credibility but still manages to soar even though it rarely deviates from a predictable flight plan.
Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra