Liam Neeson has found a niche in action films in this stage of his career ever since the release of Taken in 2008. It’s an interesting turn considering most actioners, especially these days, tend towards young, chiseled actors with more muscles than talent. Neeson is tall and lanky, and when he isn’t wearing shoe polish in his hair, you realize that he’s probably a bit too old to be an action star, which usually makes the proceedings a little more interesting. While this film could have be one of Neeson’s action misses — like most of the other ones he’s done — tighter scripting and a subdued performance gives Non-Stop a Hitchcockian tension that plays with post-9/11 paranoia.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic United States Air Marshall who is afraid of flying (yes, this is B-movie logic). He’s asked to fly to London and he does, but needs to get back to New York immediately – for reasons that are never made clear except for use as evidence against him later — but things take a turn fairly quickly. There’s a ‘90s actioner feel to the proceedings — from the way Jack Hammond (Anson Mount) and Zach White (Nate Parker) are dressed to the attitude and one-liners of Corey Stoll’s politically incorrect, heavily (read: horribly) accented NYPD cop, Non-Stop almost seems to embrace the hammy, throwback nature of its story, but instead takes itself a bit too seriously in the final act.

For what it’s worth, the screenplay is very lean and economical. Character is established quickly and efficiently, but is quickly abandoned when backstory is teased or rendered within a few furtive and skeptical glances or a quick burst of dialogue. Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) has an interesting perspective and story that is obviously thematic but lacks any real depth due to the lack of attention she’s given. But then, the story isn’t about her, anyway.

Marks laps the length of the plane repeatedly, painfully sober and beaten, shooing people away with his gun, and is played for a fool over text messages by the hijacker that knows him too well. When we first meet him he’s drinking while driving and uses tape to conceal his smoking in the plane’s bathroom. He’s ornery with everyone, yet kind toward a child traveling alone. First of all, it’s nice to see someone allowed to smoke in a movie again; second, all of this is Fiction Writing 101, but it’s Neeson’s rendition that lends some credence to it; he’s a classical actor and he raises the quality of the story where most actors would probably muddle through. We’ll buy what he’s saying even if we know it’s nonsense. That doesn’t mean it works every time — his “I’m an alcoholic!” speech is more laughable than it is cathartically poignant — but the script plus Neeson’s performance can’t help but keep you invested. It’s fairly unrealistic, yes, but it stays within its own rules and that’s fine.

Real credit has to be given to director Jaume Collet-Serra, who manages to tell a visually impressive story while only having one narrow tube of set to work with. The Blu-Ray comes with a pair of documentaries that detail the struggles of filming a movie like this; at least Flightplan used a larger model plane, but Collet-Serra embraces the claustrophobia of the set as another character in the film, related to the paranoia and ticking clock notions that Marks must deal with. While the behind the scenes features are brief, they do allow you a new respect for the director who made the most of the little that he had.

Some things rankle as the movie draws on. Small observations like “Why are there no British people outside the staff on this flight to London?” are more funny than anything, but questions such as “Would the Department of Homeland Security hire an NYPD police officer who was fired for being a brutal drunk?” are more troubling. The answer is no, but Marks is here because…plot. When the central mystery is solved and the hijacker(s) revealed, you can’t help but feel a bit letdown. That’s the nature of mysteries, of course — the suspense is always better than the payoff — but the motive behind this hijacking is a forced attempt at social relevance that falls flat on its face. It’s as if the hijacker suddenly looked directly into the camera, shook his head sagely and said, “But seriously folks, we’re not as safe as you think.” It certainly doesn’t help that the question of how it was they obtained so much intel on both Marks and Hammond to get as far and as personal as they did remains unanswered, but again, the plot required more tension.

In short, if you embrace the throwback hammy nature of the plot you’ll find yourself entangled in Non-Stop, it’s a fun diversion.

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