So the steely-eyed, sixty-something Liam Neeson is at it again carrying both an itchy trigger finger and a grudge on his action-packed aging shoulders. In the frantic aviation thriller Non-Stop , Neeson continues his late career joyride into a matured badass out to kick some serious butt in yet another eye-rolling generic actioner. True, it would be unfair to question why defiant oldster Neeson has embraced these kinetic old coot roles the last few years although no one can deny that it has given the former Oscar-nominated actor some credible bounce at the box office. Besides, why chastise Neeson when others do not blink an eye when his contemporaries such as Arnold Schwartzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis come blasting through with frivolous fare regardless of their rocking chair status? But then again it is understandable in not grasping Neeson’s gun-toting grandpa when realizing that this is the same poised performer that had previously assumed the penetrating skins of such noble names as Oskar Schindler, Jean Valjean and Alfred Kinsey. In repetitive and formulaic action cinema, the motto obviously remains: “if it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
Since 2008′s Taken, Neeson has steadily relied on his rebirth as a “shoot ’em first then take names later” kinda guy whose taste for toughness lies deep behind his sullen eyes and blank expression. The novelty of Neeson first becoming an aged avenger in the name of domestic disillusionment had its definite moments especially from a crafty veteran performer who routinely cut his teeth portraying risk-taking, brilliant men on the cutting edge. However, the aforementioned Taken and The Grey has allowed Neeson a comfortable place in the overwrought genre of redemptive actioners where ragged, stoic silent types are pushed to the limit. Somehow, Non-Stop manages to be a few notches below the atmospheric clouds in the realm of imperiled feisty flight flicks as this disposable yarn parades a tiresome Neeson going through the frenetic motions in familiar fury.
Director Juame Collett-Serra, who guided Neeson as his leading man in the amnesia-themed thriller Unknown, enters the airline suspense sweepstakes but never quite grabs the controls and pilots his arbitrary skyline saga out of its tepid turbulence. Contending with other fast-paced flight fables such as Airforce One, Passenger 57, Flight, Con Air, Red Eye and Flightplan, the bumpy ride in Non-Stop never establishes itself as a distinctive psychological danger zone drama that adds any surprising zip or zest beyond Neeson’s stone-faced heroics. In a post 9/11 airplane actioner one would think that Non-Stop could reasonably exploit both the fears and excitement of transatlantic travel with a sense of fresh-knitted verve. Unfortunately, Collett-Serra steers this high-sky vehicle off course.
U.S. air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) is a chain-smoking boozehound with a sketchy personal life to boot. Marks is performing his undercover duties as his assignment is to monitor a long distance flight from New York-to-London. Marks is not too thrilled to engage in yet another lengthy flight but hey…it is the demands of the job, right? In any event, Marks settles down a bit before things start to get rather interesting.
The mystery starts to unfold when Marks receives some rather bewildering text messages indicating that chaos will be an option if the payoff of 150 million dollars is not paid accordingly. Specifically, a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes if these conditions are not met. Of course the inevitable questions come to the forefront. For starters, who on the plane knows about Marks and his secretive line of work? Secondly, who is the mysterious individual sending him these ominous correspondences? Can Marks determine who the calculating culprit is before someone’s wings are permanently clipped on this deadly flight to England?
Naturally, Non-Stop builds up its suspicious vibes with an array of off-kilter passengers that interact with Marks-any one of them could potentially be the hijacking hooligan looking to strong-arm and match wits with the flawed gun-wielding air marshal. Perhaps the money-demanding misfit is in the form of frequent flier cutie pie Julianne Moore? Perhaps crew members such as lovely ladies in 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery are behind the menacing messages? What about the airline pilots in Jason Butler Harner and Linus Roache?
Regardless of profession, prestige or personality, Marks needs to navigate through the possible selection of air-bound travelers to weed out the criminal element causing the hysterical havoc 35,000 feet above the ocean. Can the already twitchy and irritable federal agent Bill Marks identify the riff raff as the safety of the passengers rests on his beleaguered head?
In all fairness, Non-Stop prides itself as a non-traditional action movie with a “whodunnit” whitewash attached to the physicality of the tension-driven antics. Collett-Serra eagerly wants to tread in Hitchcockiam waters with this jumpy flyboy fable but the movie is not deep enough creatively to present such ambitious leanings. Instead, the ludicrous factor of a jittery Neeson’s Marks trapped in erratic mode feels relentlessly exasperating more often than not.
One would almost wish that Neeson could revisit the over-the-top back-breaking tendencies that gave him much corrosive color in the Taken film franchise. Here, Neeson’s weary anti-hero shtick grates on the nerves in the manufactured mayhem that comes off as cartoonish and labored. In contemporary cinema nowadays, showcasing social media (in this case the art of text messaging via cellphones) is indeed instrumental and relevant. However, Neeson’s Marks and the unknown assailant’s back-and-forth communication borders on the line of being both tedious and dismissive.
Conveyor belt action suspense pieces such as Non-Stop is the reliable artistic source of bread and butter for a rejuvenated Neeson on the big screen. It is too bad he did not jump of this woeful pedestrian plane production with a parachute in tow.
Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy, Anson Mount, Jon Abrahams, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery
John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)