Being a bruised-knuckle action hero is a young man’s game. Unless, of course, your name happens to be Liam Neeson. Continuing his prodigious run of duo-syllabic action movies, Neeson is back with a gun in his hand and a weary grimace on his long Irish mug in Non-Stop, a sometimes inspired, mostly serviceable doomed-airliner thriller that reunites its star with Unknown director, Jaume Collet-Serra for another round of pseudo-Hitchcock hijinks. That beneath all the prestige-film trappings lay the beating heart of an unapologetic B-movie badass. For the most part, audiences have made out like bandits from this makeover. Neeson’s imposing 6’4” frame, haunted eyes, and knack for snapping limbs have elevated throwaways such as Unknown, The Grey, and Taken 2 into something more than the sum of their parts. They may not all be memorable films, but they’d be utterly forgettable without the high-gloss patina of a class that he gives them.
The actor’s latest genre-film gambit is Non-Stop, a tense but ludicrous cat-and-mouse thriller at 30,000 feet up in the sky. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a grieving alcoholic on board a transatlantic flight to London. This tells us he’s a man with a troubled/tragic past that will inevitably come home to roost somewhere around the movie’s third act. Collet-Serra plows through the other scene-setting details in similarly expedient fashion, introducing an “Airport”-worthy cast of passengers that includes a frazzled businesswoman (Julianne Moore), a tough New York cop (Corey Stoll), a slacker dude (Scoot McNairy), a Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally) just waiting to be racially profiled, and an unaccompanied minor. By ten minutes in, the movie is airborne, and by fifteen, Marks receives the first in a series of anonymous and taunting text messages (sent over the plane’s secure network) threatening to kill someone on board every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into a designated bank account. These doubts may seem like the figments of Bill’s pickled imagination, but the suspicion bears out.
As a rule airplanes make deviously effective settings for trashy mayhem. Collet-Serra is an able-bodied genre craftsman with a love of old-fashioned plot mechanics and an unusual generosity to actors, who are afforded more quiet, character-revealing moments in his movies than such fare typically allows. Non-Stop; in its twist-a-minute script is patently ridiculous and its appeals to our post-9/11 anxieties are as subtle as a jackhammer. But once again Neeson is a straight-faced secret weapon. With his lion’s roar and can-do fists, he grounds the film’s more preposterous moments and makes them feel excitingly tense. At a certain point either you’ll fasten your seat belt and go with Non-Stop‘s absurd, Looney Tunes logic or you won’t. Against my better judgment, I went with it.