Despite having some misgivings coming in to the cinema, I found Non-Stop surprisingly entertaining. It seemed to have a gimmicky premise—a locked-room mystery on an airliner—and a gimmicky, “limited” setting (not quite as claustrophobic as a phone booth or a coffin, but still narrowly defined). However, after a rather slow beginning, Non-Stop turned into a fast-paced, not-too-insulting-to-the-intelligence, fun thriller. It’s completely disposable, not at all profound, and at times a bit predictable and/or illogical, but…I had a good time.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson, banking big paychecks for these action movie roles while the sun shines, I suppose), is a bitter, divorced, alcoholic (although this has no bearing on the plot) federal air marshal who reluctantly accepts an assignment for a transatlantic flight from the USA to London. Shortly after takeoff, Marks receives a text message claiming a passenger will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited into a Swiss bank account. From this point onward, it’s a cat-and-mouse game between Bill and the unknown murderer (who must also be on the aircraft).
Although the flight carries 150 passengers plus crew (pilot, co-pilot, and two flight attendants), there are (for dramatic purposes) less than a dozen suspects. These include Jen (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged woman in the seat next to Bill; second air marshal Hammond, suspiciously sleazy; bespectacled schoolteacher Bowen; a Muslim doctor; a black semi-nerd; a NY cop; an adorable little girl (okay, she’s not really a suspect), and a handful of other people whom the script makes sure stand out from the crowd.
Non-Stop does a reasonably good job of raising suspicion, deflecting it, raising it again, and so forth. Early on, Bill enlists Jen as his unofficial assistant, trusting her because she was sitting next to him when he received the first text message (and thus could not have sent it). Later, however, he changes his mind, but eventually reconsiders and decides she’s alright (I guess that could be considered a spoiler, sorry). As Bill attempts to identify his nemesis, there are numerous plot twists —not all of them logical, as noted earlier—that keep the viewer off-balance, and suspense is also maintained by a secondary concern: who will be the next victim of the killer? (Frankly, the main method of murder is not very believable, but…I’ve seen worse.)
In the last 15 minutes or so, Non-Stop reveals who’s bad and who’s good, and turns into an action film. Bullets fly, punches are thrown, a bomb goes off, oxygen masks deploy, passengers scream, the aircraft goes into a screaming dive, stuff (and people) get sucked out of a hole in the fuselage, etc. Not too shabby, and except for an extremely convoluted, bizarre and not very believable last-minute explanation of the reasons for the extortion plot (which I can’t describe because it’d constitute a major spoiler, but let’s just say…it’s weird), Non-Stop wraps up in a pleasantly enjoyable manner.
The script, twisty plot aside, is rather good. There are some clever bits and amusing lines, and the way in which various characters are introduced and then our expectations (as well as Bill’s) are turned around is handled effectively. We all mentally “profile” people we encounter, and Non-Stop demonstrates that first impressions are often erroneous. At one point Bill is identified by the media as the hijacker and the passengers temporarily turn against him (he’s already being harangued over the phone by his supervisor): this is clumsy and overblown, but it does show how perceptions can be manipulated in both positive and negative directions.
The cast is almost completely made up of performers unknown to me, with the exception of Neeson and Julianne Moore. [Lupita Nyong’o, winner of an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, has a minor supporting role here, in only her second movie.] Everyone is fine, but obviously Neeson is the marquee name. His character is almost given too much back-story characterisation—ex-cop, afraid to fly, divorced, alcoholic, born in Northern Ireland, career and life went down the tubes after his young daughter died, etc.—since not much of this has any bearing on the plot. I mean, he doesn’t get drunk or anything, and his fear of flying only manifests itself during take-offs, so he’s fine by the time the plot proper gets underway. No one else, including erstwhile co-star Julianne Moore, gets any real back-story for their role.
The production values are fine (how hard is it to construct a set representing the inside of an airliner, anyway), although some of the CGI shots of the airplane in flight are cartoonish. But Non-Stop is slickly assembled and achieves its light-entertainment goal admirably. Not great, not memorable, but absolutely satisfactory for what it is.