Liam Neeson as Bill Marks
Julianne Moore as Jen Summers
Michelle Dockery as Nancy
Nate Parker as Zack White
Linus Roache as Captain David McMillan
Scoot McNairy as Tom Bowen
Corey Stoll as Austin
Lupita Nyong’o as Gwen
Anson Mount as Jack Hammond
Omar Metwally as Dr. Fahim Nasir
Jason Butler Harner as Kyle Rice
Quinn McColgan as Becca
Corey Hawkins as Travis Mitchell
Frank Deal as Charles Wheeler
Shea Whigham as Agent Marenick
Bar Paly as Iris Marianne
“Non-Stop” is director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (“Unknown”) latest complete failure at creating believable suspense.
That’s not entirely fair. The first 40 minutes are admirably gripping from the moment air marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) receives his frist anonymous text message threatening to kill one person on the plane every 20 minutes until he/she/it gets their $150 million ransom.
Even better, there’s little to no meaningless exposition beyond the quick introduction of the cast of suspects and the fact that Bill is really sand and drinks a lot. This is not a bad thing as it allows Collet-Serra to swoop directly into the suspense, tightening the screws on poor Bill as he finds himself the main suspect of his own investigation. Collet-Serra and his three screenwriters offer up a fair bit of ingenuity early on – the first victim is killed without our realizing despite happening right in front of us. They’re aided by frequently exceptional editing and camera work, which makes a lot out of the five sets the film has to work with. A donnybrook in one of the plane’s lavatories is a particular highlight.
A lot of that success has to be attributed to Neeson. Despite being into 60s, he still has the physicality to pull off action scenes with panache (see said bathroom fight). More importantly he’s just as capable at embodying Bill’s increasing isolation and desperation, particularly as the stress of the situation starts to make the liquor cabinet look very inviting. He’s been given a solid supporting cast, except for Julianne Moore, who’s stuck playing an unneeded character, the female lead in a film with two requiring either her or head flight attendant Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) to keep switching places and keeping either of them from working as well as they could have. Still, there is some success with many of the characters having been cast to type and then played against that type, such as the plane’s lone Arabic passenger, who automatically becomes a person of interest before becoming indesible to Bill keeping his investigation going. It’s that sort of subtle surprise which a suspense film needs to survive and it’s Collet-Serra’s able handling of it early on which makes his later blunders so frustrating.
Because all the good will in the world goes out the window once the murderous dart gun jury-rigged out of two pens comes out. In their quest to keep the pressure mounting, the filmmakers have fallen for the old trap of sacrificing believability for plot twists. The result is a series of sudden swerves, which would make a “24” writer blush to think of them. A briefcase full of cocaine in it is plausible enough for an action film; when it becomes a beard from something else being smuggled in and when innocuous passengers turn in to secret Green Beret’s to give Neeson someone to punch, it becomes a lot to swallow.
Or I should say, to be force fed, as Collet-Serra takes the rule of three for plot points and hammers it into our foreheads, showing important invents over and over and over just to make certain we get what he’s talking about. Perhaps he was looking into the future and realizing that’s what it would take to get our attention back.
That’s a mixture of the ridiculous twists and the fact that all the exposition avoided at the beginning is shoved into the back as character after character stops the movie dead with a monologue about their past and their motivations, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized they hadn’t done any of that yet. By the time the mastermind finally shows up to do the same with a long-winded explanation about 9/11, you may start wishing the plane would crash already.
The fourth in a string of suspense misfires from Collet-Serra, “Non-Stop” proves the director has either no ability or interest in discerning the difference between surprising and nonsensical, or between mindless or brainless entertainment. I’ll give you a hint, “Non-Stop” is not the first one.