I thought this film was going to be a sort of Taken on a Plane, which honestly I wouldn’t have minded, yet this refreshingly wasn’t the case. It is as tense as Taken, but more mysterious, with the majority of the action playing out in one claustrophobic location – a plane high above the Atlantic. The debut screenplay from television colleagues Chris Roach and John W Richardson, with the help of relative newcomer Ryan Engle, is a damn solid thriller. It’s been skilfully brought to life by director Jaume Collet-Serra and his team, namely composer John Ottman and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano, who made the slightly less impressive 2011 Unknown, also with Liam Neeson. In Non-Stop they have hit more nails on the head, and it helps to have the great Neeson along for the ride, looking as world-weary, yet fit, as ever. Actually, this was the first of two films released in 2014 where Neeson plays an alcoholic ex cop.
The story itself revolves around Neeson’s Bill Marks, who, we find after some time, is a Federal Air Marshall on yet another random flight security assignment. Unfortunately for him, it turns out to be not so routine when a mystery passenger begins sending oddly personal threats to his “secure” work phone. Transfer $150 million or someone will die every 20 minutes. What follows is Bill’s frantic attempt to keep abreast of the situation, which twists and turns, heightening to a point where his integrity is called into question and passengers begin to panic. The story is clever in how it preys on people’s suspicions, the scrutiny is always shifting and characters are made to look both good and bad as rationality repeatedly slips. No one is immune to being a suspect, Bill himself is introduced to us as rather shifty – drinking, smoking, having angry phone conversations, and leering at people. Not to mention the duct tape in his carry-on. The narrative draws heavily on the old post-9/11 paranoia, which seems to remain alive and well today, albeit in a more general sense.
Neeson is rock solid, as always, playing the disgruntled, embattled hero whose demons come rushing to the fore as the situation unfolds. This seems to be a pretty familiar role for him nowadays. Not that I’m complaining, because he manages to make even the cheesiest of lines genuine, and gets to kick plenty of arse. Check out the fight in the aeroplane toilet. The rest of the cast handle their roles well too. Recent Oscar winner Julianne Moore adds a softness to the film in the role of Jen, a warm and rather forward frequent flier who must have the window seat. Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery has a similar, humanising effect playing flight attendant Nancy. Among the general rabble is a kind neuroscientist, Omar Metwally, whose medical experience comes in handy, Corey Stoll’s no-nonsense NYPD officer, and the gorgeous Quinn McColgan as young Becca, who Bill is particularly protective of.
Collet-Serra and his team have really done a solid job here. In particular, the opening sequence is fantastically brooding, with shallow focus, close-ups and slow motion backed by clever and jarring sound design. Ottman – who started out working with Bryan Singer on films such as 1995’s The Usual Suspects – has drawn from his horror work for this dark score, complete with dashes of Bernard Herrmann-inspired strings. It helps create that taut atmosphere, along with the snappy editing and deceptively good camera coverage around the eerie, blue-lit plane cabins.
With its many clever narrative moments and slick style elements, Non-Stop proves to be a taut, mysterious thriller. Sure, there are a few cheesy moments, but isn’t life better with cheese? I know pasta is. The movie should keep you guessing right until the climax, directing our attention where it pleases to obscure the truth and build suspense. The cast work well together during all of this, making it a pleasure to watch – although much of the responsibility falls onto Neeson’s shoulders, and he delivers. Goddamn he’s pretty consistent.