I fly fairly regularly and in the boarding area, I like to play this game called “Please Don’t Let Me Sit Next to That Person.” I can be a bit cranky and I like to think that I’ve figured out a set of indicators for predicting who will be the most annoying person on my flight. Unfortunately, about half the time, the offender is someone I didn’t even notice. Non-Stop, the latest box office topping thriller starring Liam Neeson combines the forced intimacy and the anonymity of commercial airline travel to create a tense whodunnit with an old-school sensibility that delivers a captivating story with a so-so ending.
Non-Stop begins, like most air travel, with a tense trip through security and time at the gate scoping out the strangers who will spend hours cooped-up together. Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) has already had a drink, an argument with his supervisor, and a terse encounter with a fellow passenger when he boards a British Airways flight from New York to London. Not long into his flight, Marks receives a cryptic string of text messages from someone on the plane, demanding $150 million dollars transferred into an offshore account. If the airline doesn’t transfer the money, every twenty minutes someone aboard the plane will be killed. Challenged by his addictions to nicotine and alcohol, his bad reputation, and the animosity of the other marshal on the flight, Marks must get to the bottom of the threat. He enlists the help of his seatmate, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and the flight attendants, Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o), but as people start to die and it starts to look like his fault, Bill rapidly loses the trust of the pilots, TSA, and the passengers. As distrust and anxiety mount, the situation grows increasingly dangerous.
What I enjoyed most about Non-Stop was its relative simplicity. There’s nothing overtly old school about the movie, but given that it takes place mostly in one location (albeit a location flying over the Atlantic), with a limited cast of characters, and few special effects, it felt reminiscent of older thrillers that depended more on plot and character than explosions and car chases. Sure, Liam Neeson has a fistfight in an airplane bathroom, and there are some big bang moments, but most of the film is devoted to the mystery, which develops in a way that kept me guessing and on edge to the final twist. Non-Stop is well-plotted.
It is also well-acted. Admittedly, Neeson doesn’t do much other than be Liam Neeson, but it’s a role he’s good at. The supporting cast, however, really helps bring together the drama as it unfolds. Julianne Moore is both trustworthy and sort of creepy, which helps establish her character as a great help to both Marks and the rising action, but also a prime suspect. Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame and recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o have pretty marginal roles, but, as with real-life flight attendants, their facial reactions provide a barometer for how much trouble is afoot. Omar Metwally plays Dr. Fahim Nasir with a bodily tenseness that makes it clear that he can feel the eyes on his back as things start to go wrong on the plane. Similarly, Corey Stoll, Nate Parker, and Scoot McNairy fill the passengers list with characters whose actions can be read as either helpful or threatening, creating a confusing situation for both Marks and the audience.
Unfortunately, the final scenes of the film take a sudden, sharp turn toward preachiness and sentimentality that overshadowed the resolution of the mystery. Rather than trusting the audience to make the connection about the obvious cracks and margins for human error in our security measures, or critiquing them in a more subtle, nuanced way, the film turns to big, obvious speeches. Further, placing the message about security in the mouth of an unhinged villain complicates the moral in a way that doesn’t quite square with the plot of the film.
For a thrilling ride that crashed into a sentimental mess, I rate Non-Stop 3/5 stars.
Non-Stop was written by John W. Richardson. Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references.
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