Banality Carries The Day In Careless "Non-Stop"

Action-thriller “Non-Stop” plays like a punchline to an unsolicited joke. Three Oscar nominees (Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o), three Golden Globe nominees (Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roache), and a scene-stealer from last year’s Best Picture winner, “Argo” (Scoot McNairy). That’s how much talent can be sunk into something as drearily derivative as “Non-Stop,” a thriller for people who don’t watch thrillers. In all its Hitchcock-aping fury, it doesn’t even sniff the modest thrills of post-2000 gems like “Red Eye” and “Phone Booth.” No, it sets its sights much lower, missing its target all the same.

“Non-Stop” sees Liam Neeson resume his generic action hero persona – as seen in “Taken” and “Unknown” – to far less successful results. In those films, he brought grit and charm to boilerplate actioners, turning otherwise forgettable films into referendums on his talents as a performer. Neeson’s innate likability carried those characters, and subsequently, the pictures themselves. Conversely, in “Non-Stop” he’s saddled with playing Bill Marks, the worst US Air Marshal in the world – a boozing, paranoid, hot-tempered, vaguely racist air cop who’s afraid of flying.

The character, as written, is immune to the actor’s typical injection of charisma. When Marks receives a mysterious in-flight text from a passenger demanding $150 million – and threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until said deposit is made – it’s hard not to become involved in the “whodunit” bent of the screenplay. But the increasingly preposterous nature of our hero’s actions – his disregard for civil liberties is as stupid as it is unbelievable – repeatedly takes the air out of the pic’s sails.

On this transatlantic flight to London, the cast of characters consists mostly of stereotypes. The young, troublemaking black kid. The middle eastern doctor. The computer hacker. The rest are mostly red herrings, which may or may not include Julianne Moore as Jen Summers, a friendly middle-aged traveler seated next to Marks, Corey Stoll as Austin Reilly, a brash NYPD cop, and Scoot McNairy as Tom Bowen, a man on his way to Amsterdam. Since the characters speak almost exclusively in exposition, we learn nothing about any of them, leaving most of the film’s various twists and turns a shambles.

Even Marks is little more than an outline of a character. He drinks in his SUV prior to the flight. He covers the lavatory smoke detectors with duct tape in order to get his nicotine fix. And upon takeoff he clutches a ribbon that we’re told reminds him of his daughter. These are all efficient ways of relaying a character’s background, but it’s all we get until late in the game, at which point the ludicrous, contemptuous reveal of the antagonist unseats Marks at the film’s primary concern.

The big twist is so misguided that it’s likely to anger half the audience while merely confusing everyone else. Not only is it in poor taste, but its politics are so muddled that it doesn’t even make sense in the moment, rendering most of the previous plot machinations useless. They’re all specific, convoluted puzzle pieces that exist only to get our hero from point A to point B.

Once it’s clear that Marks’ exact brand of recklessness is required to solve the mystery, the film implodes into a glowing fireball of shaky cam and weird political posturing, finally bucking any pretense that its cast and crew cared in the first place.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra isn’t nearly as culpable for this mess as his trio of screenwriters, but to the credit of all involved, it’s never dull. Its steady stream of stupidity is likely to provoke enough cognitive function that most viewers should come through unscathed. But don’t mistake entertainment for quality in the same way that “Non-Stop” mistakes words and movement for story. Take the high road. Treat the film better than it wants to treat you – by ignoring it entirely.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: February 28, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Linus Roache, Lupita Nyong’o
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references)