The strangest thing about Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Non-Stop” – a jet-propelled airplane hijacking thriller filled with plenty of strange things – is that it appears to think that audiences will approach the Liam Neeson-starring film free of the knowledge that Neeson plays an air marshal on a flight apparently taken over by a murderous madman. Never mind that the film’s entire plot centers on Neeson’s Bill Marks attempting to bring down the bad guy after he starts texting him his nefarious plans. Disregard that this is literally the narrative of the film. Forget that it’s been in every trailer, commercial, and TV spot. Nope, when Marks’ badge first makes its appearances on screen, whole minutes into the feature, it’s styled as a surprise, a big shock, a twist.
Perhaps we’re meant to balk at the “news” that Marks is an agent because we’ve already seen him chugging some booze before boarding his plane, or because he seems to be the exact kind of “haunted” that movies request (frankly, he just seems distracted), or because he was rude to a random guy in line. Nevertheless, Marks is indeed an agent, and despite his drinking and bad attitude, he’s been casing the flight long before boarding even commences – and thanks to the deft camerawork of the film, we’ve started observing all the players, too. The cast is cleverly outfitted with recognizable enough faces – including Julianne Moore, “Downton Abbey” leading lady Michelle Dockery, Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, former “House of Cards” star Corey Stoll, and “Argo” co-star Scoot McNairy – all of whom are just familiar enough to feasibly be the villain (and, no, we won’t guarantee that the film pulls from this pool for its baddie, but you get the idea). The film quickly indentifies any number of potentially interesting characters, from Moore’s desperate-for-a-window-seat Jen, Dockery’s flight attendant Nancy, and McNairy’s Tom and Stoll’s Austin, equally shifty-eyed. Rounding out the big cast is Anson Mount, who proves to be far more familiar to Marks than anyone would suspect.
The flight starts out fine enough, with Marks white-knuckling his way through takeoff (aided by a ratty ribbon that he clings to), chatting it up with Jen, and apparently trying to forget just whatever it is that haunts him (we’re betting that clutched ribbon has something to do with it). The first text comes early, and soon Marks is off on a breakneck search for whoever it is that’s texting him that they’re a) a passenger and b) about to start killing people at twenty minute intervals unless Marks can get them $150 million dollars. Collet-Serra attempts to inject some energy into the texting-heavy tension, first only showing Marks’ texts on his actual phone screening, before they beginning flashing up on the screen, occasionally getting jumpy along with bad turbulence, and even throwing in some amusing instances of autocorrect.
The film is packed with twists and turns, and while they initially wear on the audience in the first half or so (“whiplash” it seems, is both a literal possibility for the passengers on board and a metaphorical one for the audience), but Collet-Serra eventually settles into a steady pacing that appropriately ratchets up intensity and big twists before bringing them down again. One of the biggest sources of that intensity? The possibility that Marks is on the plan. The marshal’s innocence appears to constantly be in flux, and an early text message that reads as suspicious is explained away by less than satisfying means.
But “Non-Stop” certainly finds time in all its tension to splice in some unbelievable plot movements that run the gamut from highly unbelievable to just acceptable enough – would a federal air marshal really employ the help of some random lady sitting next to him? Is it actually that easy to open a bank account in someone else’s name? Are these actual bomb protocols at play? Could a man as unhinged as Bill really get this job? – but they help keep the film moving right along, proving to be mostly forgivable.
The film does, however, fold in some highly understandable aspects, especially when it comes to a burgeoning mob mentality and the influx of modern technology on what used to be a totally contained environment. The immediacy of the news cycle also plays a large part in the latter half of the film, as video of Marks ranting and manhandling a passenger makes its way online (damn cell phones!) and the confused passengers are soon barraged with televisions blaring that, yes, they’ve been hijacked, and yes, Marks is the bad guy. The drastic measures he takes to find his man (or woman?) don’t help matters, and “Non-Stop” keeps both its characters and its audience on their toes.
However, the hand-to-hand action of the film is sadly lacking, relying on tight spaces and incomprehensible angles to confusingly convey that “some people are hitting each other, and it looks like it hurts.” The comparatively luxe setting of the Aqualantic jet keeps things from feeling too claustrophobic, though, and there are plenty of places and situations to explore while uncovering the mystery. Yet some of the film’s most intriguing possibilities – like the strange way that technical difficulties on the plane appear to sync up with the bad guy’s plan – are never fully explained away, even when the last act features one heck of a long-form exposition about the baddie’s motives, delivered in a hammy way that doesn’t match the cleverness of the rest of the film.
Otherwise, “Non-Stop” is a relatively high-flying adventure, injecting the always-entertaining airplane-set thriller with some fresh thrills and a cadre of characters worth getting invested in. It may not be first class, but it’s certainly got some room to spare.
SCORE: 7.3 / 10