Audiences could be forgiven for going into “Non-Stop” expecting an overdose of action. The poster image of "Taken"-era Liam Neeson pointing a gun in an intense motion blur suggests as much, and clearly the producers intended the film’s title to have a double meaning.
But “Non-Stop” actually spends more of its time building suspense, which is a good thing. But once the scales start tipping toward action, the film struggles in its own turbulence.
In a story that is explicitly meant to be a commentary on our post-9/11 world, Neeson plays Bill Marks, a washed-up air marshal who is more or less a mirror image of the character he plays in the “Taken” films. Marks is an alcoholic, he has family issues, and when he gets in a tussle, he becomes an unstoppable fighting machine.
But that’s getting ahead of things a bit.
Marks is assigned to a six-hour flight across the Atlantic to London, and he’s not happy about it. It doesn’t help that he's also an air marshal who happens to have issues with flying, but those concerns are quickly set aside when Marks starts getting cryptic text messages from another passenger. The instructions are simple: Get the airline to pay $150 million, or a passenger dies every 20 minutes.
Thus, “Non-Stop” becomes a suspenseful race against time as Marks tries to identify the perpetrator among the crew and passengers. There are plenty of candidates. Half the passengers have suspicious looks on their faces by default. There’s also Hammond (Anson Mount), Marks’ fellow air marshal, who is behaving suspiciously. There’s the Muslim doctor seated two rows ahead. And then there’s the redhead (Julianne Moore) who almost seems a little too friendly. About the only person in the clear is the 7-year-old girl with the teddy bear who is flying for the first time.
Since the show's running time is a bit longer than 20 minutes, it’s safe to say that things don’t work out cleanly for Marks or the perpetrator. And as time goes by and the bodies start to pile up in increasingly mysterious fashion, it becomes clear that Marks is going to be framed for the whole mess. For the most part, the film handles the challenge of its confined setting rather well and demonstrates some fun creative thinking. But the farther things move along, the more the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief is challenged.
Around the time Neeson has to fight off a half dozen of his fellow passengers, you start to wonder just how much of a superhuman free pass we can give the “Taken” star. And when the big reveals start to build toward the climax, you get the feeling that a decent suspense film is being bogged down by the usual Hollywood clichés. It's far from awful, but it feels destined for the Wal-Mart discount bin.
Of course, "Non-Stop" may prove to be more entertaining in 20 years than it is on its release. Its plot and action are critically dependent on contemporary technology like texting, phone cameras and wireless networks. Someday down the road, the "next big thing" may turn "Non-Stop" into the modern-day equivalent of any pre-2000 film with a plot that hinges on the protagonist's inability to find a pay phone.
But if you don't want to wait 20 years, “Non-Stop” still offers a decent ride. Just be ready to shrug off a few cringe-worthy moments. There’s definitely worse out there right now, but unless you’re determined to get out of the house this weekend, this one might be a better fit for a rental.
“Non-Stop” is rated PG-13 for some brutal but largely bloodless violence, some sexual content, and profanity, including a single use of the F-word.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.