Movie Review: “Non-Stop”

In airplane movies, there’s only so much that can happen to everyone. The traditional threats seem to be a hijacker, an epidemic, a bomb, or the supernatural (OK, fine, throw in snakes too). The screenwriter’s job is to open up the drama on the plane gradually so as to tell a three act story with what amounts to two major characters: The airplane and the passengers. The ultimate goal is to keep the audience engrossed in this totally enclosed world.

Non-Stop does exactly that, which I why I recommend it. I do this despite the movie critic within me’s protestations. I recommend it solely because I found it interesting and I think other people will as well. Short of wicked, the worst thing a picture can be is boring. Non-Stop isn’t boring.

Non-Stop features Liam Neeson in a setup very familiar by now. He’s a man with “a certain set of skills,” tearing his way through the set and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal assigned to a transatlantic flight. Bill brings onboard his badge, his pistol, a bottle of whiskey and his cigarettes. He’s an alcoholic on constant verge of emotional breakout, for reasons that are given in a crucial, well-acted scene late in the drama.

Bill receives a text message from an anonymous number, one that knows personal details about him and threatens to kill the people on board every twenty minutes, unless Millions of Dollars(TM) are transferred into a bank account. Bill surmises that texter must be onboard. He goes to elaborate lengths to attempt to discover who it is, and contacts TSA about a potential hijacking. Problem, though: The TSA informs Bill that the anonymous texter’s bank account is in Bill’s name. “I can’t talk to you anymore,” says the government official to Bill. “What does that mean?” “It means we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Uh-oh. Bill realizes his only choice: He must find the terrorist, or be labeled one.

Non-Stop features a lot of well-drawn, interesting characters, none more so than Jen, played brilliantly blasé by Julianne Moore. Jen has a deep scar on her chest and nervous habits like Bill, yet she becomes Bill’s confidant and helps him. In a very smart piece of screenwriting, the passengers come to believe they are being hijacked by Bill himself. This leads to some of the movie’s best scenes, showing once again how experienced actors such as Neeson and Moore can elevate the performances of those around them.

Neeson is in good form, though to be fair, at this point he is mainly repeating his characters from films like Taken and Unknown. He has a remarkable ability to make the action hero more human, more visceral than most similarly cast male stars.

My biggest complain with Non-Stop is its third act. I have no problem with suspension of disbelief, and as a full of plot holes as Non-Stop is, it is entertaining and engrossing. My issue is that the movie’s final 20 minutes suddenly descend into seriousness and even politics. A climactic monologue from a key character sounds like it was written for a different movie, a documentary about post-9/11 American perhaps. It’s so out of place here and jerks the audience into reality after two hours of action and drama that border on sci-fi. It comes off as a cheap way to give “meaning” to the movie (why does any filmmaker in a post-Star Wars generation feel like his picture needs social significance?).

Non-Stop invites comparisons to Flightplan, a film also about a hijacked airplane and a hijacked identity. I enjoyed Flightplan more because it delivered the goods consistently with how it was premised. It also had a more interesting hero, one that didn’t benefit from possessing Invincibility cheat codes. Nevertheless, Non-Stop will not lose viewers at any point. It’s got two reliably solid actors leading the way for an engrossing and dramatic story. It reminds me of the drill sergeant’s line in Full Metal Jacket: “You may not have brains, but you’e got guts, and guts is enough.” Isn’t it always?

Studio Canal presents a film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by John Richardson and Christopher Roach. 106 minutes. PG-13.

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