Hear the metallic grind of a large and powerful vehicle screeching to a halt? In Non-Stop, that is not the sound of a fuselage in flames hitting the tarmac, but the breaking of Liam Neeson’s career as an action star. Oh, the hulking actor is still convincing as the thinking person’s badass, even when he’s just collecting a paycheck, as he does here, letting his authoritative growl do all the acting; with a character like Bill Marks, an air marshal with a troubled past, acting really isn’t required. The film’s gimmick is that a routine transatlantic flight turns out to be anything but. There is a terrorist onboard, and the target being terrorized is Bill. If the marshal doesn’t convince his superiors to wire the unknown criminal $150 million dollars, a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes.
Despite this contrived set-up, Non-Stop quickly accelerates, with a Hitchcockian frisson to Bill’s implacable attempts to determine the source that’s sending him taunting text messages. Is it his seatmate, an overly friendly yet elusive single woman (Julianne Moore), or a seemingly harmless Middle Eastern doctor (Omar Metwally)? What about the meek pilot (Linus Roach) or the cautious stewardess (Michelle Dockery)? As the passengers become panicky while Bill uses his phone to try and smoke out the culprit, the tension ratchets nicely.
And then the cat-and-mouse game becomes tiresome, and the confined setting monotonous (despite some brief glimpses of radiant Lupita Nyong’o, recent Oscar winner, as a stewardess). Most disappointing is the infrequency of turbulent air-travel effects—cell phones not being the most compelling of props. Though the film’s resolution is indeed a bit twisty, as expected from a script based on standard-issue Agatha Christie, the plot is a bland mess, trying to be a murder mystery, a topical thriller, a disaster flick, and a midlife-crisis drama with little success at any of these genres (the script is noticeably by committee). By the end, even the stalwart Neeson, whose dangerous gravitas has elevated such actioners as Unknown (also by director Jaume Collett-Serra), Taken, and Battleship, seems worn down by the clichés of his character—no easy feat, and the film’s most unintentionally remarkable aspect.