Thursday, February 27, 2014


Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra

2 out of 5

The remarkable career of Liam Neeson is filled with many detours, perhaps none more unlikely than his late-blooming action stardom and the creation of an archetype I like to call the "Neeson Hero."  This character, crystallized in 2008's Taken, is essentially a kindly father figure with a vicious mean streak that emerges when ever the innocent are threatened.  His sad, moony eyes and soothing brogue convey an innate trustworthiness, and his age - old enough to be thinking of grandchildren - means that he's typically fighting for something besides an inappropriately young love interest.  And his sensitivity belies his personal troubles, usually alcoholism or a lingering guilt regarding his relationships with family and friends.

Non-Stop is the latest project to emerge from this template, a mildly diverting hijacking thriller that simply runs down the Neeson Hero checklist without adding anything to it.  Neeson stars as Bill Marks, an air marshal aboard a transatlantic flight who receives a threatening text message that promises someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless a ransom is paid.  In the beginning, Marks attempts to follow procedure but runs into obstacles:  his skeptical fellow marshal (Anson Mount) surmises that the text is a prank; his superiors on the ground don't have enough evidence to ground the plane; and besides, they are over the middle of the Atlantic, hours away from the nearest landing strip.

What follows is a rote exercise in lone-wolf action and dubious logic with only intermittent flashes of sanity, as the unseen terrorist's plot evolves into an elaborate frame-up of Marks.  Non-Stop proceeds with this fanciful scenario despite the queasy subtext it engenders: a hectoring government agent storming through the cabin, making increasingly invasive and aggressive demands of the passengers, Neeson looks every bit like the bad guy he's set up to be, not the fiercely defiant hero the movie needs him to act like.  This is less of a problem for the other characters, however, easily forgiving a man appearing to abuse his authority and acting like a total bully, so long as he delivers heartfelt, reassuring speeches proclaiming is innocence.  (One passenger jumps to Marks' side literally moments after the marshal breaks his nose.)

Non-Stop is guilty of all the sins of a lazy action thriller.  It wastes Julianne Moore as an ally of Marks who reveals a huge personal secret irrelevant to the rest of the plot.  Everyone has a terribly cloying or cliched backstory, a small child is used as an instrument of peril, and the closely-guarded reveal of the villain's true intentions makes absolutely no sense.  The filmmakers also have a strange and distasteful fetish for encouraging the audience to see the characters as stereotypes.  They seem to take delight in making us suspicious of a bearded Muslim doctor and a defiant black passenger just so they can pretend to subvert our discriminatory notions with lame red herrings.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra tries to keep things fresh on the visual side by sending his camera swooping across rows of seats and down aisles.  He even sneaks in a couple of long takes that effectively build tension without feeling conspicuously stylized.  But this ultimately matters little when working with material this rote and hackneyed.  There's something to Neeson's against-the-grain appeal that keeps films like Non-Stop from complete failure; unlike lots of action-man automatons, he has emotional depths that make you believe he really is just a softie who's been pushed too far.  But the Neeson Hero inhabits an uncomplicated world where the good survive and the bad are punished, and, in the case of Non-Stop, all is tied together in a weird tarmac denouement that's oddly reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane.  He endures - even as his adventures become increasingly interchangeable.

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