Liam Neeson’s transformation into a hulking action movie star still carries a certain degree of novelty charm. From playing Oskar Schindler to portraying Hannibal Smith, his career has taken a somewhat unexpected turn since that iconic collaboration with Steven Spielberg.
In 2008, Taken, a grittily violent slice of wanton entertainment, signalled Neeson’s rebirth. Its toxic reviews and crassly Europhobic plot (teenage daughter goes to France against her dad’s wishes and is kidnapped immediately. Dad goes to France. Kills everyone) failed to dampen audience enthusiasm for its lead’s hard-bitten impersonation of every Charles Bronson role committed to film. It was a significant box office success and suggested that there was money to be made from unleashing Neeson’s imposing figure on evildoers worldwide.
Further roles in similarly-themed actioners followed thereafter. The Grey and The A-Team were decent. Others, such as Taken 2 and Unknown, were frankly dreadful. Neeson is a working actor of course, in spite of his undoubted success, and at times he simply appears loath to reject the job. Whatever his motivations, at 61 years of age he shows no signs of slowing down.
His second collaboration with Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra — also responsible, on a more positive note, for ghostly Spanish horror The Orphanage — Non-Stop is typical of the middling, schlocky, check-your-brain-at-the-door material in which Neeson is now a familiar fixture. One should have no expectations of being treated to anything other than a mildly entertaining and derivative hijacked-plane drama. There is nothing new, or remotely nuanced here beyond a topical fixation with the apparent terrors of mobile technology. That said, it is not as brutally uninteresting as a naff marketing campaign might otherwise indicate. Neeson remains an engaging presence and, for all Non-Stop’s rote predictability, there is just enough to save it from complete ignominy.
As federal air marshall Bill Marks, the Ballymena actor checks all the necessary tormented-protagonist boxes. He glowers, touches pictures of his daughter and speaks in gruff tones. He even stirs his snifter with a toothbrush. His passport says ‘Belfast’, his accent less so. Set to board a flight from New York to London, he begs his supervisor to grant him a quick turnaround. He can’t be in London for more than a day, he growls down the phone. His problem with the Big Smoke is never revealed. Perhaps it’s the weather?
Anyway, his brief time at the gate introduces all of the significant co-passengers before locking them in a claustrophobic steel tube for the next 90 minutes. The usual archetypes are present and correct: the comforting crew (Lupita Nyong’o, slumming it after 12 Years a Slave, alongside the always lovely Michelle Dockery) and reassuringly British pilots; a brash NYPD cop; a Muslim doctor; a nervous traveller. So far so unoriginal. In the seat next to Marks is Julianne Moore’s chirpy frequent flier, an irritating and deliberately suspect ally for much of the duration.
None of it is especially interesting until Neeson’s cell starts buzzing with anonymous messages promising airborne chaos unless $150 million is transferred to the obligatory shady bank account. From that point on, a taut enough little mystery thriller develops as the taciturn hero stalks the aisles attempting to weed out the perpetrator. There may be inevitable and numerous plot chasms — how does the villain get our Liam’s number again? — but jettison the need for highbrow things like, say, logic and Non-Stop becomes eminently bearable.
With his adversary warning of a death every twenty minutes, the marshal is forced to go full federal and dispense with any inflight niceties. This includes, horrifyingly, turning off the wi-fi. The twenty minute segments maintain the pace and the way in which that particular threat is fulfilled displays a surprisingly clever level of manipulation.
Collet-Serra manages to keep his film interesting by shifting the focus of suspicion from seat to seat. The identity of the antagonist is fairly obvious from an early stage but there are ample opportunities for those assumptions to fade. Indeed, with all signs pointing in his direction, Marks seems in danger of morphing into something more sinister, a twist hovering in the background.
The mystery is literally blown up before the finale, however, as it all descends into a cloud of generic CGI, slow motion gunplay and hilariously bad dialogue (“Come on you wankah!”). The reasons behind the conspiracy turn out to be so ludicrous that they may well have been dreamed up seconds before the cameras rolled – a cringe-inducing commentary on United States foreign policy. Or something.
Whatever Non-Stop’s deficiencies, few stem from the name above the title. Neeson is still good value for the price of a ticket and fans of his newer populist output will find much to cheer about. Anyone expecting Schindler’s List needs to catch the next flight.
An edited version of this article was first published here.