Before taking on the role of a Jedi Master in the first Star Wars prequel, Liam Neeson spent most of his time acting in a variety of dramatic and period pieces, including his Oscar-nominated role in Schindler’s List. After getting a taste for action, though, he started carving out an extremely successful career in a variety of action thrillers (as well as becoming one of the go-to actors for gruff and authoritative voice-over work). And though he still makes time to do some work in more dramatic fare, at 61, he’s nowhere near ending his reign as a viable action superstar, starring in yet another winning thriller, Non-Stop.
Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal accused of hijacking the plane he’s supposed to protect. To clear his name, he must find and stop the real terrorists before time runs out. Like in a lot of his other action films (including Taken, Unknown and The A-Team), Neeson proves his usual forceful, commanding capabilities, but in Non-Stop he uses his background in drama to find more emotional depth, allowing Marks’ emotionally tragic back story (as opposed to a more generic special forces-style back story) to define every decision he makes.
We first meet Marks in the airport parking lot, pouring a bit of alcohol into his coffee and focusing all of his attention on a picture of his daughter. It’s a nice, quiet opening that doesn’t pay off as well as I’d hoped, but one that sets up the character of Marks quite well and allows us to understand what he will need to overcome during the course of the film.
The rest of the passengers are introduced through Marks’ point-of-view as he makes his way through security and scans the crowd in the waiting area. We only get to see a glimpse of each one, but that glimpse is all of the information Marks is going to have once things heat up on the plane, so giving us just this small hint as well allows us to experience the tension and discover new clues along with Marks, connecting us with him and his journey in a deeper way.
However, once we do get closer to each of these characters, we discover that the characterizations lack the power the filmmakers are trying to capture. In other words, if you were to remove Marks from the equation, all we are really left with are a few stock characters — the fast-talking black guy, the over-worked businessman, the tough as chops policeman, the suspected Muslim doctor — and an overabundance of wasted potential.
The most prominent of these characters is Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), a victim of her own tragic past, who helps Marks in his investigation. I have nothing against Moore, and her performance here is just fine, however, the romantic chemistry that director Jaume Collet-Serra is going for between her and Neeson falls incredibly flat. Their chemistry as a whole isn’t up for debate; they were both believable and connected well. But at no time did I ever believe that there could be anything but friendship between the two.
Another missed opportunity for more dramatic tension was in the story of a young passenger, Becca (Quinn McCoigan), who was flying for the first time to visit her father. She is alone and scared, yet after her first initial run-in with Marks (as he returns the teddy bear she accidentally left behind), she disappears for the majority of the movie, showing back up only toward the end of the second act.
Building on the relationship between Becca and Marks throughout the film would have strengthened not only Marks’ back story, but the payoff of the final act would have been much more emotionally resonant. It may have also given the head stewardess, Nancy (Michelle Dockery), a little more to do than simply obey all of Marks’ commands. It was the one aspect of the film I believe the filmmakers really dropped the ball on.
Aside from that, the rest of the movie soars at just the right altitude of tension and escapism. As Marks plays an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse with the perpetrators (who remain one step ahead of Marks at every turn), a very subtle political game is also being played behind the scenes.
The action works like a beautiful ballet, moving along at a swift pace with delicate grace while never becoming redundant or over-complicated. The tension rises with each new threat and suspect revelation, and though there may be one too many red-herrings, each one is necessary to push the plot forward and give Marks the tools and knowledge he needs to get closer to the truth.
On the other side of the spectrum, Marks continually attempts to gain help from his senior officers and the TSA throughout the film, but because they believe he is the terrorist, their help is extremely limited. It’s a bit of a peak at how the system was designed to keep terrorists from hijacking a plane and explores the thin line between real safety and the illusion of safety. With all of the technological capabilities we have these days, there’s no telling what someone with the intelligence and the will to prove something can accomplish.
But it’s the end that truly matters in a film such as this, and that too is well-executed in both its discovery of the truth and the summation of the reasons behind the what and why. For a moment, it does fall into a slight case of monologuing, but it actually makes sense for it to happen… I mean, what else are they supposed to do in such a confined space thousands of feet in the air?
For a dramatic thriller, the film falls a bit short of the runway, but for a thrilling popcorn flick with a bit of drama and intelligence to it, the film succeeds, and there’s no doubt I’ll continue to watch Liam Neeson fight to thwart evildoers for as long as he chooses to push the boundaries of his own physicality.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include 300: Rise of an Empire and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.