Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Released in 2014
If you really love movies, you must respect the genre film: the not-quite-blockbusters, shot for $50 million or less, serving time-worn action, horror, sci-fi and Western thrills. To revere Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Anthony Mann and dismiss those following in their footsteps is a most common hypocrisy amongst film enthusiasts today. Genre films bring home money instead of Oscars, yet the best of them exert intelligence and an impeccable command of cinematic technique. Non-Stop is not the best of the best, but it is up there. While Liam Neeson reprises a more nuanced take on the badass paternal figure he has been playing since 2008’s Taken, director Jaume Collet-Serra situates his actor in a story and setting packed with more post-9/11 commentary than its poster would have you expect.
It all starts pretty Screenwriting 101: In slow motion, a pair of hands tip a flask into a coffee cup, stir the drink with a toothbrush and reach for a wrinkled photo of a little girl. Bill Marks (Neeson) is a grizzled alcoholic with a sad, yet-to-be-explained backstory sitting alone in his car when he receives a call that, yes, he has one last job to do. He works as an air marshal, despite being scared of plane takeoffs, and this flight from New York to London should keep him on his toes. There is a reticent Muslim (Omar Metwally), a non-PC cop (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) off to see his “fairy brother marry a guy with a British accent,” Julianne Moore yapping in the seat next to him and, worst of all, a giggling supermodel (Bar Paly) cuddled with her beau behind him. It’s all clichés, tropes, been there, done that for the first few minutes.
But you stick with it, because all Liam Neeson movies these days start the same, and this one gets a whole lot better than any of them, save for The Grey. Midway through the flight, over the Atlantic, Bill receives cryptic text messages over his secure network that if he does not wire $150 million to an account in 20 minutes, a passenger will die. Neeson’s Savior Mode activates, as he recruits Moore and a familiar flight attendant (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) to look for conspicuous cell phone use. But this is 2014, so everyone is a suspect. The Agatha Christie vibe escalates once 20 minutes elapse and, through Bill’s direct actions, a passenger ends up dead in a bathroom stall. The TSA traces the terrorist’s bank account to Bill Marks’ name, and it looks like our imperfect hero has been framed. People keep on dying; you keep on watching.
At this point, I could describe the fight scenes, which are scarce but claustrophobic, intense and awesome. When reviewing a bad action film, you can adjectivise hand-to-hand combat and fill six paragraphs. Thankfully, Non-Stop is quite good, so there is more going on than Neeson kicking ass and, therefore, much to talk about. In fact, the story’s momentum depends on Bill Marks backing himself up, through tactical miscalculations, into a corner for most of the movie. Targeting the Muslim on-board proves to be a prejudiced and rushed judgment, as does singling out a black man wearing a hoodie for search. The issue of profiling criminals according to race and gender vexes Bill throughout his mission, and the diversity of the flight’s passengers represents a microcosm of America at large. Lupita Nyong’o, the beloved Mexican-Kenyan actress who won fame and an Oscar on Sunday as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, can be found roaming the aisles as a little-seen flight attendant. Her do-nothing character stands against the provocative questions the film raises, but I mention her because the world is in love with her right now and two minutes of Lupita is better than none, I guess.
The matter of security — its necessities, limits and enforcers — in post-9/11 America also haunts Non-Stop. When the possibility arises that Bill, their avowed protector, may be the terrorist, the passengers fret over what action to take. They know what happened on United 93 and recognize that Hollywood and U.S. history posthumously (and rightly) valorized the civilians aboard it because they took decisive, selfless action. Meanwhile, the irony that a federal agent assigned to defend would turn and hijack a plane proves too appealing for news pundits to ignore. There is a great shot of passengers plugging in their headphones and watching, on those back-of-headrest screens, talking heads accuse Bill of terrorism or worse on live television. The isolation of today’s media — everybody has their own screen — prohibits conversation and connection, for we prefer to take for truth the words of a suited man before a camera than whatever a real, beat-up human being seated next to us might say.
The politics of Non-Stop are difficult to decode, but they are there. Collet-Serra leans Jack Bauer conservative, in that homogenous bureaucracies often distort and lie while flawed but passionate agents wield their dogmatism to best unfavorable odds (Take note of what the omnipresent Shea Whigham, as Agent Marenick, says over the phone at the very end). The script stoops to two sappy, on-the-nose speeches about such themes — grandstanding, from heroes and villains, is sort of a requirement in a movie like this. Take them with a grain of salt, for Collet-Serra embeds his own perspective through camera placement, text message superimposition and other cinematic techniques alone.
Prior to its release, Reverse Shot critic Nick Pinkerton tweeted, “What sort of human garbage gives a poor review to Non-Stop?” I don’t think he was being facetious, and neither am I. Non-Stop follows the book, yet it fills in its margins with questions, patterns and Liam Neeson. The challenge here is to enjoy the superficial thrill of it all while daring to appreciate it as, if not art, then seriously smart entertainment. Balance those two tasks and you may just save America.
3.5 Stars out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.