Global action star Liam Neeson stars in 'Non-Stop,' a suspense thriller played out at 40,000 feet in the air. During a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a series of cryptic text messages demanding that he instruct the government to transfer $150 million into an off-shore account. Until he secures the money, a passenger on his flight will be killed every 20 minutes.
The previews for 'Non-Stop' make it look like a typical check-your-brain-at-the-door, jumbo-jet-in-jeopardy yarn filled with action galore and a plot as preposterous as any in pulp fiction. And if Jaume Collet-Serra's film remained true to its trailers, that would have been perfectly fine with me. Ever since 'Airport' and its deliciously doltish sequels, I've been a huge fan of over-the-top thrillers in the sky. (I even enjoyed the utterly ridiculous 'Snakes on a Plane.') There's just something about watching a cabin full of trapped, hysterical, oh-so-stereotypical passengers grappling with impending doom and hurtling headlong toward disaster that's bizarrely appealing to me. Call it a guilty pleasure or strange obsession, but I just can't get enough of airline actioners.
'Non-Stop,' however, pleasantly surprises. Unlike its campy cousins, this film doesn't just have a pulse, it also brandishes a brain. Don't get me wrong; far-fetched situations and head-scratching plot developments still abound, but this airborne tale is much more grounded in reality than many similar genre entries. Part 'Angels & Demons,' part 'Flightplan,' and part 'Passenger 57,' 'Non-Stop' combines the best elements of all these flicks to create an absorbing, thoughtful cat-and-mouse mystery that's refreshingly straightforward in its presentation. Creating a taut yet largely authentic airline thriller is no easy task in this post-9/11 age of supposedly impenetrable security, but the free-flowing script crafts a terrifying situation without straining credulity too often. Of course, part of the fun of this type of movie is rolling with the punches and not taking it too seriously, but such flicks are a lot more satisfying when we don't spend half our time rolling our eyes in disbelief.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is a dedicated but disillusioned and slightly unstable air marshal who's haunted by a past tragedy. He drinks too much, covers the lavatory smoke detectors with duct tape so he can sneak a cigarette during flight, and harbors a slight fear of flying that manifests itself during takeoffs. On a typical day at the office, Bill boards a London-bound trans-Atlantic jet and finds himself sitting next to Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), a quirky yet attractive woman who engages him in conversation. Not long after reaching cruising altitude, Bill begins receiving text messages from an anonymous source claiming a passenger will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into a precise account. Bill wonders how his secure cell phone could have been compromised and thinks it's all a joke, but when the texter follows through with his (or her) threats - and when Bill learns his name is linked to the bank account in question, making him the chief suspect in what his superiors perceive as a hijacking by a troubled and unbalanced air marshal - he frantically fights the clock and a flight full of frantic, suspicious passengers as he struggles to find the murderous culprit and keep the plane from crashing.
Unlike most thrillers of this sort, 'Non-Stop' favors brains over brawn most of the time, as Bill meticulously dissects his situation and tries to unravel the intricate web of intrigue. A brooding atmosphere of tension pervades the proceedings, and a gallery of cold, suspicious characters populate the scenario, making it a real challenge to figure out who is the devious mastermind behind the murderous plot. 'Non-Stop' takes its time building to its nail-biting climax - I actually craved more action than the movie supplies and became a bit impatient, at times, with the methodical pacing - but the final scene is as good or better than most disaster film denouements. Plenty of excitement, slick direction, an interesting twist, and solid acting by a strong cast lift 'Non-Stop' above other films with similar slants.
Neeson leads the charge, and wears his unlikely role as action hero well. (Who could have predicted 'Taken' would spawn such a drastic - and lucrative - career change?) A far better actor than Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Neeson couples the part's required square-jawed strength and gravity with a welcome dose of vulnerability, insecurity, and sincerity that makes him an instantly relatable everyman instead of a robotic, cardboard superman. He handles all the stunts and physicality with ease, never seeming out of his element or out of his league, and his chemistry with Moore, who makes the most of a rather thankless role by injecting bits of spunk and attitude, is relaxed and natural. As the stewardesses (I should probably say "flight attendants") dressed in 'Star Trek' uniforms, Michelle Dockery of 'Downton Abbey' and Lupita Nyong'o of '12 Years a Slave' (in a role of astonishing brevity - there won't be any more of those after her recent Oscar) add some eye candy to this muscular, macho tale, but no one can steal the spotlight from Neeson.
'Non-Stop' does not provide non-stop action, nor does it provide non-stop tension, but it remains a nifty little thriller that takes itself seriously and doesn't overplay its hand. It won't blow anyone away, but it's good entertainment for a weeknight evening, plain and simple.
Typical of new releases, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Non-Stop' is crisp and clean, with excellent clarity and contrast, nicely modulated color, and plenty of depth and presence. There's no grain to speak of, and the pristine source material is free of any nicks, marks, or scratches.Though the airline interior doesn't burst with vibrant hues, the bluish seat upholstery and various costume accents look bright and bold, and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout. The fine details of the flight cabin show up nicely, and the plane's tubular appearance provides a palpable sense of depth. Close-ups highlight facial creases, pores, and hair follicles well, black levels are rich, and no noise, banding, or pixelation mars the image. This isn't a knock-your-socks-off transfer, but it's a very solid effort indeed that keeps our eyes glued to the screen and our brains focused on the drama in the skies.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies high-voltage sound, especially during the exciting, action-packed finale. Subtle surround effects are sprinkled throughout the more sedate scenes, emphasizing the busy airport atmosphere, but once the climax occurs, all channels shift into high gear, pumping out plenty of well-defined audio effects that thrust us into the epicenter of the drama. Bass frequencies are especially strong, with lots of deep, weighty rumbles, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the varied tonal activity with ease. Solid fidelity helps the music score fill the room, and all the dialogue, whether it's delivered in hushed tones or intensely shouted, is always clear and comprehendible. No distortion or other imperfections mar this quality track that stands up well against its other genre entries.
The only supplement is an eight-minute featurette called "Suspense at 40,000 Feet," a typical EPK-type piece that incorporates a number of cast and crew interview clips covering such topics as the project's attractiveness, script construction, the claustrophobic set and its visual challenges, and the talents of director Jaume Collet-Serra. It's not particularly enlightening, but it's presented in a breezy, easily digestible fashion.
'Non-Stop' may not be the finest airline action movie - or even the finest Liam Neeson action movie - but it's a better-than-average thrill ride that's more substantive and believable than most of its preposterous cousins. With a taut script and a few pointed jabs at our post-9/11 society, this terror in the air drama puts a new twist on a tired and clichéd formula, and winds up a satisfying piece of popcorn entertainment. Neeson proves once again why he's a hot action hero, and earns every cent of his multi-million-dollar salary. Universal's Blu-ray presentation is thin on supplements, but top-quality video and audio transfers immerse us in the intrigue and keep our attention transfixed throughout. 'Non-Stop' makes a couple of pit stops on its action-packed journey, but it never crashes and burns, and as a result, it earns a solid recommendation.