Nate Parker, left, and Julianne Moore in a scene from "Non-Stop."
A hijacked airliner action-thriller with a relentless pace and 10 or so potential villains, Non-Stop is nearly unstoppable fun — until the killjoy of its big villain reveal.
Failure to properly finish what they started is becoming a bad habit for Non-Stop’s director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson. Their 2011 team-up Unknown was another smart action-thriller propelled by similar guesswork by moviegoers, only to be sabotaged by daft third-act twists.
In Unknown, Neeson plays a man awoken from a coma to discover his identity has been stolen. Non-Stop doesn’t initially offer much more of a backstory. We meet Bill Marks (Neeson) in his car hitting the bottle in the early morning before boarding a flight to London.
As a flight marshall drinking shortly before work, Bill clearly has issues, and the film leans heavily on its star to sell us the depths of his character’s emotional pain through hangdog expressions and a defeated posture rather than autobiographical dialogue.
With a sizable 6-foot-4 frame, Neeson, even at 61, possesses the physical presence to convince us of Bill’s pugilistic skills. But unlike so many other action stars, the Oscar-nominated actor also has the dramatic chops to offer Bill as more than a tough guy in the skies but a man struggling to keep it all together on what should be a routine assignment on a transatlantic flight.
Somewhere over the ocean, however, the prosaic plane ride turns nightmarish when Bill receives a text message from another passenger that someone on board the plane will die every 20 minutes. And sure enough, someone does. To stop the killing the anonymous texter demands $150 million be deposited into a special account.
Bill scours the plane cabin for the culprit and Collet-Serra successfully transforms his action film into a Clue-inspired guessing game as the camera routinely captures a gallery of potential villains either looking or acting suspicious. Is it one of the creepy or angry white guys, the black guy who continuously has words with Bill, or the Middle-Eastern man with a British accent? Or perhaps something more sinister than these villainous stereotypes, such as a member of the flight crew or even Julianne Moore as a mysterious woman who just happens to request the window seat next to Bill?
The cat-and-mouse game with the anonymous terrorist is only part of Bill’s troubles, as the would-be hero is recast as the main suspect by his on-the-ground superiors and the breaking-news media coverage.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Screenplay by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle.
A Universal release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality, and drug references.
Running time: 104 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★½
Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roache.
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
Collet-Serra keeps all of this moving along at rapid and efficient pace until he unmasks the one causing all the trouble.
Without giving too much away, the villain offers some half-baked reasoning for the hijacking as a wake-up call to U.S. citizens that somehow involves 9-11. It’s a clumsy non sequitur that topples over what had been a well-executed action-thriller. Given how the script, credited to John Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, successfully keeps us on the edge, this third-act failure is particularly deflating.
Non-Stop marks the second major film for Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a flight attendant. Given that she’s the Oscar frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress for her stunning work in 12 Years a Slave as a tortured slave, she’s underutilized in this smallish role. An Oscar win on Sunday would change that.
Still, it’s easy to see Non-Stop’s appeal to a four-time Oscar nominee Moore, who, like Neeson, expands the resonance of her character beyond the narrow confines of the script. She and Neeson have a surprising amount of chemistry, too, even as he ponders whether she can be trusted.
After the third-act misfires of Unknown and now Non-Stop, perhaps moviegoers should wonder if similar trust issues beset Collet-Serra and Neeson.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.