Few actors have enjoyed such a surge in popularity late in their careers as Liam Neeson, who successfully transitioned from Oscar-nominated actor to arguably the most bankable, action hero in Hollywood.
In his latest, the entertaining thriller “Non-Stop,” Neeson finds himself in a familiar role — as another flawed character forced to once again be a hero (and as an actor raising a movie to a higher level).
This time, he plays Bill Marks, an air marshal trying to prevent someone on a transatlantic flight from murdering passengers every 20 minutes unless their $150 million ransom is paid.
Steely-eyed and composed as always, Neeson doesn’t make Marks a drastic departure from his regular action hero roles, but it’s hardly broken so there’s no need for him to change it just yet. What makes Neeson excel in these roles is he provides a greater level of depth to his characters that doesn’t come across as obligatory angst or an unnecessary attempt at making him “cool.”
Through subtle gestures like wistfully looks at happy couples a bit too long or wearily staring back at his reflection, Neeson conveys so much about how Marks is with minimalist effectiveness. Neeson makes character studies seem so easy.
Stereotypes are thankfully quickly shattered so it’s not just a matter of profiling the minorities, forcing Marks to become part investigator to track down the culprit.
Unsure of who he can actually trust, Marks enlists the aid of flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”) and Jen (Julianne Moore, “Don Jon”), an overly friendly passenger.
Characters react to the situation appropriately in a post 9-11 world creating believable conflict for Marks beyond trying to identify the suspect.
The screenplay, credited to John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, is far smarter than you’d suspect from the trailers, which emphasize the action elements instead of the more prevalent murder mystery aspects.
Like Wes Craven’s masterful “Scream,” their script offers plenty of potential suspects while Director Jaume Collet-Serra draws attention to any remotely shifty glare or motion, constantly forcing you to re-evaluate whodunit with seemingly every other scene.
With so many viable candidates from the tech guy (Nate Parker, “Red Tails”), the cop (Corey Stoll, “The Bourne Legacy”), the chatty passenger (Scoot McNairy, “Killing Them Softly”), the businessman (Frank Deal) or the new flight attendant (Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”), options don’t start getting removed from the board until they’re dead.
For essentially another Neeson action vehicle, the supporting cast, specifically the always-fantastic Moore, is outstanding. Their roles may not be as significant as expected, but they are across the board solid and make the most of their screen time.
Although the majority of the film takes place on a plane, the location never feels limited. Collet-Serra, who previously teamed with Neeson in the 2011 hit “Unknown,” stages clever camera perspectives to not make it so obvious that the setting is restricted to aisles and cramped restrooms.
He also shows commendable restraint in not overdoing the film’s most gimmick laden bit — a pop-up style display of the texts Marks receive.
While there may be some plot holes or absurd conveniences if you were determined to look hard enough, “Non-Stop” is simply too much fun to bother worrying about it. Sit back and enjoy the flight, Captain Neeson has everything fully in control.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10