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Non-Stop: The Air Up There

by Ethan Alter February 28, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Non-Stop</i>: The Air Up There

During the course of his unlikely late-career stint as an action hero, Liam Neeson has logged plenty of flight time traveling to exotic locations like France, Turkey, Alaska and Germany to kick ass. So it's understandable that the nearly retirement-age actor is cashing in some of those frequent flier miles by saying yes to Non-Stop, a thriller that keeps him in a confined space (specifically a transatlantic airline) instead of traipsing through the urban and/or natural wilderness. The other benefit of keeping the action confined to a single set is that the filmmakers have more money to recruit a higher-caliber cast, which is how this glorified B-movie is able to recruit such noted thespians as Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery and current Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o. It doesn't give these folks anything challenging to do, mind you, but if you're going to be stuck on a six-hour New York-to-London flight, it helps to enjoy the company of the passengers and crew.

And for the first two acts at least, Non-Stop is mostly enjoyable, if wholly implausible. But that's par for the course with most airline-in-peril productions, where the more unlikely the threat facing the plane is (snakes, food poisoning, a rampaging Gary Oldman) the better. In this scenario, the looming disaster takes the form of an unseen, onboard assassin who repeatedly texts his or her demands -- $150 million to an offshore bank account or a passenger dies every 20 minutes -- to the alcoholic, self-hating air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) on duty for the duration of the trip. Finding and neutralizing this threat provides the spark necessary to shake Bill out of his stupor and into "getting shit done" modeā€¦ though he inevitably becomes so obsessed with cracking the case that the people he's meant to be protecting, not to mention his supervisors on the ground, start to wonder whether he's the mastermind behind this crazy scheme.

But that bit of psychological gamesmanship is ultimately just a tease, as Neeson isn't the kind of action star who generally breaks bad. He's played bad guys, sure -- most recently to terrific effect in The LEGO Movie -- but while his heroes are allowed to be as tortured and obsessed as all get-out, they remain, fundamentally, good. So even if everyone else aboard this problematic flight looks at him sideways, the audience is never really put in the position of doubting Neeson's sanity. Instead, we're invited to watch him do what he does best in this particular role: methodically stalk about the frame, expression grim, eyes laser-focused on rooting out his enemies and voice barking out orders in that commanding Irish baritone. Small wonder that Neeson has become an above-the-title solo action star where wannabes like Chris Pine and Channing Tatum have failed; unlike those young guns, he seems capable of saving the world on purpose instead of by accident.

Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra previously collaborated with Neeson on Unknown and he's got a good sense for how to use his star, giving him wide berth to roam about the cabin using his particular set of action movie skills. (That cabin, by the way, is considerably more spacious than those aboard standard airplanes, a bit of fudging that does allow the director to be more fluid in his camerawork, allowing the camera to float above the fray or sending it hurtling down an aisle after Neeson, thus offsetting potential claustrophobia.) The rest of the cast is equally deferential towards the lead, though they do take advantage of what few crumbs the script gives them; Stoll, for example, confirms that his scene-stealing turn on House of Cards was no fluke, while Dockery and Moore function as effective sounding boards and occasional foils for Bill's plans. (On the other hand, Nyong'o disappears and reappears from the movie so frequently, it's almost as if she filmed her scenes while juggling award season red carpet appearances.)

Nobody onscreen, though, not even Neeson, can improve the various idiocies that are flung at us in the final act, where the three-man writing team has to get down to business and resolve this conflict. What follows is a mid-air disaster that's akin to the one that brought down Flightplan, the 2005 plane-bound Jodie Foster thriller that skidded to a cataclysmic crash in its absurd conclusion. As in that film, this resolution hinges on some massive leaps in logic as well as a villain whose motivations -- once they are revealed -- are so inane and poorly though-out, the biggest thing they're guilty of is stupidity. It may be too on-the-nose to say that Non-Stop doesn't stick the landing, but the speed at which the movie turns from pleasantly diverting to semi-disastrous botch is genuinely disheartening -- like scoring a surprise upgrade to business class at the gate only to be tossed back in coach before takeoff.

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