Continuing his prodigious run of duosyllabic, Euro-financed action movies, Liam Neeson is back with a gun in his hand and a weary grimace on his long Irish mug in “Non-Stop,” a sometimes inspired, mostly serviceable doomed-airliner thriller that reunites its star with “Unknown” director Jaume Collet-Serra for another round of pseudo-Hitchcockian hijinks. Lacking anywhere near as clever as script this time, Neeson and Collet-Serra put this wronged-man programmer dutifully through its paces, with plenty of the gruff machismo and close-quarters grappling that have made the 61-year-old actor a late-career global action star. (Can an “Expendables” cameo be far in the future?) Turnstiles should click briskly for this Studiocanal/Joel Silver co-production, which opens overseas today, 48 hours ahead of its Stateside bow.
It’s easy to imagine that “Non-Stop” was pitched as “’Unknown’ on an airplane,” with Neeson once again spending most of the running time trying to convince people that he is who he says he is — in this case, the federal air marshal trying to root out a hijacker, as opposed to being the hijacker himself. But the script, credited to tyro scribes John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, also bears more than a glancing resemblance to 2005’s “Flightplan,” in which Jodie Foster’s grieving widow becomes convinced that someone has kidnapped her young daughter in the middle of a transatlantic jumbo-jet flight. There, Peter Sarsgaard was the seemingly benevolent air marshal who turned out to be a raging psycho intent on turning the plane into a giant WMD; here, someone who perhaps saw that movie is trying to frame Neeson’s Bill Marks to appear the same way.
When we first see Marks, sitting in his car outside JFK on a rainy, wintry day, the bottle of Jim Beam in his hand tells us he’s a man with a troubled/tragic past that will inevitably come home to roost somewhere around the movie’s third act. Collet-Serra then plows through the other scene-setting details in similarly expedient fashion, introducing an “Airport”-worthy cast of passengers that includes a frazzled businesswoman (Julianne Moore), a tough New York cop (Corey Stoll), a thirtysomething slacker dude (Scoot McNairy), a Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally) just waiting to be racially profiled, and the de rigueur unaccompanied minor. The only real surprise: not a priest or a nun anywhere in sight. By 10 minutes in, the movie is airborne, and by 15, Marks has received the first in a series of anonymous text messages (sent over the plane’s secure network) stating that someone on board will be killed every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into a designated bank account. In a sure sign of our inflationary times, “Flightplan’s” criminal mastermind only asked for a mere $50 million.
One of the consistent pleasures of airplane movies, at least for frequent flyers, lies in seeing the fictional airline names and logos dreamed up by movie production designers, along with the simulated aircraft themselves, their rows and aisles invariably enlarged to accommodate the camera’s passage. (In the movies, every seat is an Economy Comfort seat.) Here, we’re on board a British Aqualantic 767 bound for Heathrow, and it comes equipped with a crew whose members, all too plausibly, initially dismiss the threatening messages as a hoax. (They include captain Linus Roache, co-pilot Jason Butler Harner, and flight attendants Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong’o, who has precious little to do in a role she clearly filmed before anyone had seen “12 Years a Slave.”) Then someone dies right on schedule, and it’s Marks who has their blood on his hands. He also, it turns out, has his name on that aforementioned bank account.
From this point forward, viewers are best advised to make with their disbelief as one does with oversized cabin baggage: Check it at the door. The ultimate revelations about Neeson’s semi-amnesiac “Unknown” character notwithstanding, we sense from the start of “Non-Stop” that Marks is a good guy who’s been set up, and for a while the film sustains a reasonably fun game of whodunit, as the body count rises and the hair-trigger Marks begins interrogating passengers with a bedside manner that makes “Taken’s” Bryan Mills seem like Florence Nightingale. That even an air marshal could manage to get away with such behavior in an age when commercial airline passengers have bum-rushed and hog-tied flight disruptors for far less violent offenses stretches the movie’s already elastic sense of plausible reality to the breaking point more than once. But even in the movie’s most ridiculous moments, Collet-Serra keeps the pacing brisk and knows how to divert our attention with a well-timed bit of comic relief. Sensing a potential passenger riot on his hands, Marks quells the fire by announcing that Aqualantic is offering everyone free international travel for a full year.
A protege of producer Joel Silver, the Spanish-born Collet-Serra (who already has a third Neeson pic, “Run All Night,” in the can for next February) is an able-bodied genre craftsman with a love of old-fashioned plot mechanics and an unusual generosity to actors, who are afforded more quiet, character-revealing moments in his movies than such fare typically allows. By its very design an exercise in claustrophobia, “Non-Stop” eventually runs out of places to go, and builds to a big third-act reveal that’s at once so ludicrous and heavy-handed that it sucks all the thrust out of the movie’s jet engines. It’s also the first of Collet-Serra’s movies in which so many good actors are put to such little use, including Moore, who like most of her fellow passengers is there mainly to arouse passing suspicion and get roughed up at Neeson’s hands.
But Neeson himself is a compelling presence throughout, even if we’ve now seen him play this sort of lone man of action at least a half-dozen times. Typecasting isn’t necessarily a liability if you’re an actor with Neeson’s knack for sauntering through a scene as though his body were weighing heavily on his shoulders, and woe be to all who obstruct his path. It’s been widely noted how “unlikely” it is for the “Schindler’s List” Oscar nominee to have been reborn, close to retirement age, as a latter-day Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood. But it’s age, weariness and disappointment that are precisely Neeson’s greatest virtues. As he kicks butt onscreen, he seems a man hardened by real experience, not by hours spent in the gym.
Reunited with most of his “Unknown” crew, Collet-Serra delivers a technically proficient package, aided by the moody cabin lighting of d.p. Flavio Labiano and a bassy, propulsive John Ottman score.