In 2005 and 2006, we had a small post-9/11 glut of thrillers set on airplanes, all largely excellent in one way (United 93) or another (Red Eye, Flightplan), or another (Snakes on a Plane). It’s a subgenre I’m happy to return to yet again in Non-Stop, especially when it’s done well, and even better, when we’re seated next to Liam Neeson. He has such likable, intimidating intelligence on screen. Using his height, his gravely accent, and his piercing eyes to communicate a soulful determination and confident capacity for handling any situation in which he finds himself, he anchors and makes compelling even the junkiest of thrillers, like Taken 2. For very good thrillers, like The Grey, he helps make them into terrific suspenseful evocations of existential anguish. Non-Stop’s entertainment value falls somewhere between those previous pictures. It’s a relentless entertainment that constantly tightens the situation around Neeson, constraining options and narrowing his ability to maneuver until the panic reaches a crowd-pleasing intensity.
In this slow boil thriller of slickly increasing and enjoyable suspense, he plays an air marshal aboard a late night transatlantic flight from New York to London. Not long after takeoff, he receives a series of texts from a blocked number. Each new message flashes on the screen, the silence of the midnight flight turning ominous as the texts reveal an ultimatum. A passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a specified account. It’s a hostage situation, but only the marshal knows, at least at first. Who is the hostage taker? It’s someone on the plane, but he or she is doing an awfully good job staying hidden. (Could this be the first organic and well-executed use of texting for the purposes of cinematic anxiety?) Director Jaume Collet-Serra, of the skillfully upsetting horror film Orphan and the Neeson-starring actioner Unknown, uses the darkened nighttime interior of the plane to heighten the drama and keep the stakes intensely enclosed.
A cleverly contained mystery, the film is smartly not a whodunit, but a who-is-doing-it. Any one of the people hunched over their tablets and smart phones could be doing the threatening. It’s a high-flying locked room mystery, Agatha Christie by way of Speed. The screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle respects the audience’s intelligence as it follows Neeson looking around the plane, hunting for anything suspicious. The appealing ensemble is loaded with familiar faces playing passengers (Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally), flight attendants (Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o), and airline officials (Anson Mount). All of them can ably appear suspicious and innocent in the same instant. Neeson is desperately searching amongst and around them for a clue when events suddenly conspire for a corpse to turn up exactly on schedule. The threats are no mere prank. They are deadly serious.
As events on the plane grow increasingly desperate, curiosity escalates in the passengers and crew. Information and rumors spill out in dribs and drabs of context-free worry, eventually making their way to the ground where authorities, like Shea Whigham in a good voice performance as a security official calling the plane’s phone, and news media assume Neeson is the one doing the hostage-taking . That only makes solving the case harder for the poor guy. It’s a credit to the inexorable forward momentum of the film and the welcome shades of complexity to this Hitchcockian wrong-man panic that I found myself desperately wanting Neeson to be right, but half-prepared for a twist that would put him in the wrong. It sure looks like he’s being framed, but in this situation everyone is a suspect. The plane keeps cutting through the night sky, too far to turn back to America, still too far away from Europe to make a landing. But as the threat of violence looms, casualties slowly pile up, and Neeson’s behavior grows increasingly desperate, it’s agonizingly clear they’re eventually heading to the ground one way or another.
Non-Stop stays at a consistent height of peril, compelling and involving throughout. Neeson grounds it all with a weary humanity as an alcoholic ex-cop with sad family problems, a token amount of backstory that would seem cheap if a lesser actor was in his position. He reluctantly finds himself the center of this madness, and the one with the best chance of bringing it to a safe conclusion. Collet-Serra makes great use of Neeson’s height and broad shoulders in contrast to the tight aisles and low ceilings of the setting, finding ways to use every bit of the plane in clever ways, even sending the vehicle into sudden turbulence to punctuate dramatic moments. The raw material is nothing inherently special, but in its execution it rises to the level of superior craftsmanship. It is a solid, exciting, and satisfying thriller.