Non-Stop manages the difficult task of being a solid thriller as well as constantly silly, and the result is a film that was far more entertaining than I expected it to be. Director Jaume Collet-Serra‘s previously filmography has been underwhelming to say the least, and his previous collaboration with star Liam Neeson, the thriller Unknown, was awful. But paired with a solid script from John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle, Collet-Serra keeps the story moving, the whodunit a constant question, and utilizes Neeson’s performance to ground the picture so that our eye-rolls don’t do a complete 360.
Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) is a despondent alcoholic (really top-notch hiring by the TSA) who’s tasked with protecting a six-hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean. As he’s about to settle in for the duration of the trip, he receives a text message over the private network notifying him that unless $150 million is transferred to a specific bank account, one passenger will die every 20 minutes. The story then becomes a race-against-time mixed with an investigation compounded by a wrong-man scenario when the clues to the terrorist’s identity lead back to Marks.
It’s a scenario that’s both preposterous and captivating. As long as we’re willing to play along, then it remains a fun picture and not in a “turn off your brain” way. The script does sometimes go too far in pushing its premise, and occasionally stumbles in its haste to keep the story moving (as the camera grazes over the supporting cast, my friend leaned over to me and said “ShadyCharacters.org”). The script can also be its worst enemy since it has to throw up obstacles to stop Marks even though a terrorist would presumably want to make it as easy as possible to get the money.
This back-and-forth between a serious thriller with a worthy mystery (although I should note that unless the story is painfully predictable, I’m terrible at guessing the bad guy) and the ludicrous plot elements should create a sense of whiplash, but Collet-Serra’s flat approach manages to hold everything together. Granted, it’s held together with a boring, bluish-green filter, and the visuals don’t really explode until the laughable ending, but the overall consistency keeps the picture functional. The director gets to have a little fun with showing the texting between Marks and the captor, but it’s more of a matter of keeping up the energy, and Collet-Serra trusts the script and his star to keep the picture humming.
Marks is a good middle-ground between the unstoppable force of Bryan Mills from Taken and the forgettable, out-of-his-depth boob from Unknown. His personality is perfectly illustrated when he goes into the airplane lavatory to smoke. He’s resourceful enough to know how to do it, but he can’t get through the flight without lighting up. The scene also highlights the seriousness and silliness of Non-Stop. It shows Marks as a depressed hypocrite, but it’s also a pro-tip on how to cheat a lavatory smoke detector. Thankfully, Neeson always knows how to sell these scenes. He’s just serious enough to make us believe the situation, but not so po-faced that the plot becomes a self-serious chore. It also helps that the cast is packed with real actors including Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, and Nate Parker. No one is overplaying their part, so they all manage the balance of being just suspicious enough that we can’t rule them out entirely as the villain.
I don’t want to say Non-Stop works much better than it should because it is an interesting story and it’s a good cast. The real question mark was Collet-Serra, and he does a serviceable job of supporting the movie’s strongest assets. Ironically, Non-Stop would be a great movie to watch on an airplane. It’s distracting, never boring, and enough to hold you over until your reach your final destination and forget about the ride.