Liam Neeson may have launched his career with serious fare like Schindler’s List, but the moment Taken ignited at the box office, it became obvious that the actor had found his niche. Since that modern action classic, he’s led The A-Team, unraveled an assassination plot in Unknown, faced down wolves in The Grey and once again combatted human traffickers in Taken 2. The actor’s formula for these action flicks is pretty clear-cut. Neeson plays a gruff but likable badass, who’s hurtled into an impossible situation and forced to fight his way out, all the while maintaining his intrinsic dignity. The actor’s latest, Non-Stop, never tries to break away from that formula, though director Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously helmed Unknown with Neeson) does make a cliché-riddled ride enjoyable.
Quickly establishing a sense of claustrophobia and expertly handling a number of close-quarters action sequences, Collet-Serra proves capable enough to both infuse Non-Stop with surprising energy and keep the spotlight squarely on his appealing star. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal struggling with alcoholism and the recent death of his daughter. During a non-stop flight from New York to London, Marks discovers that an unknown terrorist is planning to kill one passenger every twenty minutes until he deposits $150 million into an off-shore account.
As Marks races against time, he’s confronted with untrusting passengers, a baffling mystery and the distinct possibility that whoever’s playing games with him has no intention of letting anyone on the plane ever set foot on solid ground again. As you might guess, it doesn’t take long before Marks is brawling in the passenger aisle, gesticulating loudly and doing other things that very angry Liam Neesons do. That part of the film works, thanks to both Neeson’s considerable gifts as an actor and Collet-Serra’s refusal to ever slow down the pace. Neeson kicking ass is what got people into theaters to see Non-Stop in the first place, and the movie doesn’t disappoint in that area, delivering one especially brutal beatdown in a plane lavatory and some very impressive battles all across the plane.
What’s more surprising than the inclusion of those sequences is that the script takes a ‘who-dunit,’ almost Hitchcockian approach to its central mystery. As Marks scans the rows of passengers for signs that one of them could be a dangerous terrorist, Non-Stop builds a strong sense of paranoia and suspense. It’s refreshing to see that kind of set-up in an actioner as otherwise traditional as this. If only the writers didn’t feel the need to blatantly paint every single character as a suspect. Too many of the red herrings are obvious enough to justify a mighty audience eye-roll.
Most of Non-Stop is entertaining thanks to the fast pace, Neeson’s performance and that mystery angle. It’s only when twists start coming left and right in the final third that the entire affair falls apart. In pursuit of a concise runtime, the writers and Collet-Serra wind up sacrificing the one thing Non-Stop desperately needed after building tension for most of its length – a satisfying payoff. Sure, the threat emerges, and Neeson leaps into action – and it’s all visually thrilling to watch – but there’s an unmistakable choppiness to the final act, as if it’s being rushed through with little regard for common sense or audience satisfaction. That’s a real downer.
At least the other actors on board are game to help Neeson out with an ultimately lame screenplay. The always-welcome Julianne Moore plays Jen Summers, Marks’ seatmate and occasional partner in searching for the terrorist. Michelle Dockery (of Downton Abbey fame) plays a flight attendant familiar with and sympathetic to Marks. And Lupita Nyong’o, coming off an Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave, has a bit role as an oft-frightened flight attendant. Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Omar Metwally, Corey Hawkins and Anson Mount play others on board who end up playing key roles in the story – though I won’t spoil in what ways.
With all those strong players, the movie should be stellar. It’s decidedly not though, opting for familiar thrills over anything really creative and intriguing. However, with Neeson ably handling the lead role and Collet-Serra directing each action sequence with clear intelligence, Non-Stop has just enough strengths to overcome its weaknesses. In the end, it’s a well-acted and well-shot action thriller that’s weighed down, but never quite sunk, by its mediocre script.
Universal gave Non-Stop a strong 1080p high-definition transfer, which does a very solid job of blending color, image depth and detail into a pleasing visual package. Non-Stop‘s confined setting means that it isn’t the most vibrant of suspense thrillers (expect lots and lots of blues), but that’s not at all a problem with the transfer. It’s just part of what Collet-Serra and his cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano set out to do with their movie. The detail is where, in my mind, this disc succeeds the most markedly. Textures on seats, each individual freckle on Moore’s face, the glint on Marks’ watch, all of it is terrifically rendered.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, too, is free of issues. It skillfully juggles crisp dialogue, sometimes jarring (but intentionally so) background sound effects and John Ottman’s heartpounding score without ever running into difficulties. Everything here is clean, smooth and terrific to listen to. For a claustrophobic thriller like Non-Stop, it’s really essential for the sound to deliver, because that aspect of the movie serves a crucial role in immersing the audience completely in the film’s setting, and this audio track does not disappoint in that (or really any) respect. The only area in which Non-Stop truly disappoints is in its extras. In addition to a DVD copy, Digital HD/UltraViolet copy code and iTunes-compatible digital copy code, the measly selection includes:
- Non-Stop Action (5:14)
- Suspense at 40,000 Feet (7:45)
Yep, that’s it, unfortunately. “Non-Stop Action” looks at the action choreography that went into making the movie, from the more elaborate sequences involving multiple passengers to Marks’ bathroom brawl early on. It’s nifty to get a glimpse at all the crew members working to create memorable and realistic action scenes, though this featurette is too clipped to really get much more than a cursory glance at what’s going on behind the scenes.
Similarly, “Suspense at 40,000 Feet” talks about how the director and writers worked to make Non-Stop a suspenseful thrill-ride, but it’s nowhere near long enough to give fans of the film the in-depth insight into production that they were likely hoping for. What’s left are a few stray comments about the writers using the post-9/11 climate of in-flight fear as a jumping-off point and how Collet-Serra worked to keep the camera moving and lively with only one main set.
The video and audio on this Blu-Ray are truly terrific, but the extras are wasted space. It’s a real shame that Universal couldn’t put together an even slightly more comprehensive set. As it stands, however, Non-Stop is a fun little thriller for Neeson fans that doesn’t demand much. Anyone in search of smart action fare should look elsewhere, as the script is riddled with both clichés and holes. But look past that unfortunate truth, and you’ll be rewarded with an entertaining, visually involving thriller led by one of the best action stars working today.
The payoff leaves a lot to be desired, and the script is full of holes, but Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra at least ensure that Non-Stop is an entertaining ride.