Review: Liam Neeson’s ‘Non-Stop’ works as a thriller but makes some terrible choices

“Unknown,” “Orphan,” and “House Of Wax” are all various degrees of fun, depending on how seriously you take them, and director Jaume Collet-Serra is certainly slick. Part of me wonders if he can read, though, because he seems to have made a habit of picking ridiculous scripts with ridiculous ideas at the heart of them, and then he directs them as if they are the most serious things in the world.

In theory, I have no problem with that. As I said, I think those three films manage to be silly pulpy fun, and that's exactly what I expected from “Non-Stop.” For a good chunk of its running time, it is indeed a silly but well-made ride in which Liam Neeson plays his popular character John Taken, but on a plane this time and without a daughter. There is a point in the film, though, where the bad guy (whose identity is played as a mystery for most of the film) finally spells out his motivations, and in that one moment, I completely disconnected from the film. More than that, I was repulsed. It would be akin to watching an “Austin Powers” movie that suddenly tried to deal seriously with the Holocaust before cutting back to a dance number with a barely-dressed Beyonce.

The script, by John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, takes its time with the set-up. We see Bill Marks (Neeson) go through his pre-flight preparation, and we also see a number of other passengers as they all wait for their flight. It's only once everyone is onboard and in place that we learn that Marks is a Federal Air Marshall, and he's supposed to be providing security for the flight across the Atlantic to London. Marks is a drunk, still despondent over some personal tragedy, and he seems content to just sleepwalk through his job until he gets a text, not long after take-off, that tells him he has 20 minutes to figure out a way to get $150 million transferred to an off-shore account or someone on the plane will be killed.

It's a great hook, and as with any of these films where you have characters in a small confined space with a ticking clock, part of the challenge of the film is how you can find ways to keep things interesting and keep some sort of internal logic in place even as you find excuses to keep the characters from leaving or bringing in other help. “Non-Stop” manages to keep things rolling along, using the mystery of the bad guy's identity to keep Neeson active.

There are two major problems with the film. First, there's that motivation I mentioned. Without getting into the details, I will simply offer up a trigger warning, because there are people who will get blind-sided by suddenly dragging 9/11 into a movie this goofy. If you're someone who still finds memories of that event and discussions of it to be emotionally painful or upsetting, then skip this one. It is a cheap and stupid answer to what is driving the film's plot, and used in this way, I find it genuinely distasteful.

The other major problem is that this time, Collet-Serra's fondness for frommage tips too heavily in the wrong direction, and he piles on the ridiculous moments in a way that eventually becomes too much. It is a fine line between making a crowd-pleasing moment that pays off emotionally and drowning everything in Velveeta, and there's one in particular that they go for at the end of this film that makes me think Collet-Serra is unafraid of even the hokiest, silliest beats.

Neeson is fine here, and I'll be curious to see how many more years he's going to be able to play the action star. Hollywood figured it out very late after decades of giving him primarily dramatic roles and romantic leads, and as a result, Neeson's kicking into this sort of high gear at the exact moment many guys would be trying to move out of the action movie business. It helps that he's roughly the size of a house and when he throws someone around the cabin of an airplane, he authentically looks like a guy who can do that. The bad guy in the film sets a frame that makes it look like Neeson is the one pulling off the hijacking, and they get some decent mileage out of him having to confront his own demons in order to effectively do his job.

Julianne Moore has a good time playing Jen Summers, a suspiciously friendly woman who ends up seated next to Neeson on the plane. The various passengers and crew all end up as suspects, and when you've got people like Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong'o, Linus Roache, and more all playing the parts, it seems like a shame to give them so little to do. In particular, anyone who thinks they're going to get a sense of what Nyong'o can do beyond her work in “12 Years A Slave” won't get any help from this film. She's barely in it, and for most of the film, she's a glorified extra.

If someone really digs “Non-Stop,” I certainly wouldn't hold it against them. I don't think it's a bad film. It's a completely average film that makes a few terrible choices, and those pulled me out of the movie enough that I don't think I'd ever bother with this one again. Besides, there's another film that plays this same kind of game that I'm going to review this afternoon as well, and it does it sooooooo much better.

“Non-Stop” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.