Thursday, June 12, 2014

Movie Review: Non-Stop

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Bill Marks), Julianne Moore (Jen Summers), Scoot McNairy (Tom Bowen), Michelle Dockery (Nancy), Nate Parker (Zack White), Corey Stoll (Austin Reilly), Lupita Nyong'o (Gwen), Omar Metwally (Dr. Fahim Nasir), Jason Butler Harner (Kyle Rice), Linus Roache (David McMillan), Shea Whigham (Agent Marenick), Anson Mount (Jack Hammond).

Liam Neeson’s late career transformation into an action star really is kind of strange. He hadn’t done many action films until he was around 60 – building his reputation as a “serious actor” in films like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins. Around 1999, he started what I called the “doomed mentors” phase of his career – appearing in films like George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – often briefly, giving the younger protagonist a mentor to look up to briefly, before being killed off. It really wasn’t until 2008’s Taken – when the actor was 56 – that he became an action star with a “very specific set of skills”. That’s about the age – or honestly a little past it – that audiences start laughing at most action stars, who either have to reinvent themselves as character actors (Bruce Willis) or keep plugging away at nostalgia products, that we all know are ridiculous, but kind of enjoy anyway (Sylvester Stallone). It’s become almost an annual tradition that we’re going to get an early year Neeson action film – even though other than The Grey (2011) – none of them have been very good. What’s the key to Neeson’s success in these films – which all make money, and audiences seem to enjoy even if they admit they’re kind of silly? I think it’s that he seems to take them seriously enough that it allows the audience to buy the admittedly silly premises, but not so seriously that the films get bogged down in an unearned sense of self-importance. I haven’t really liked many of these Neeson programmers – but I like him in them. He does indeed have a very specific skill set that seems to work for them.

Non-Stop has a silly premise even by the standards of these recent Neeson vehicles. He plays Bill Marks – an Air Marshall who flies around the world in first class, undercover to prevent any future hijackings (the movie shows various clips of talking heads on TV, all of whom seem to be ripping how much the Air Marshalls make, and how much the program costs – is this a real debate?). He’s settling in for a long flight from New York to London, when he gets a text on his secure network. It wants $150 million wired into a bank account, or else the texter says that they’ll kill one person on board every 20 minutes. Neeson tries to get others – his partner, the captain, the intelligence agents on the ground – to listen to him, but no one quite believes the threat is real. How could anyone possibly think they could get away with something like that? But people do start dying – but by then, it’s too late to turn around – and all the evidence suggests that it is Bill Marks himself who is hijacking the plane. No one really believes him except for Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) – his seat partner.

The film is a twist on the old genre of the “country house murder” when a sleuth like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would be faced with solving a mysterious murder, when all the suspects are stuck in the same place for an extended period of time. This is somewhat complicated in Non-Stop by the fact that they don’t have a dozen suspects, who dwindle as one after another get bumped off – but hundreds of suspects aboard the packed flight. Naturally, as an audience member you start playing “spot the killer” – and you do so by figuring out who in the supporting cast you recognize (Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary tells us that a star who has seemingly no reason to be in a movie always turns out to be the killer). At least in Non-Stop, the supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces – Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roach, Lupita Nyong’o, and of course Julianne Moore – so it really is impossible to tell who the killer is going to be – unless you get lucky when you take your wild guess. You never for a second believe that Neeson is actually behind it all – the evidence is just too perfect for that.

Neeson does his job fine in the movie – once again showing his patented grim determination to get the job done (and yes, Neeson’s grim determination is much different than Tom Cruise’s patented fierce determination). He holds the movie together when it should fly apart at the seams for sheer ridiculousness. I had to wonder when I watched the movie though if the whole thing could have been avoided had Neeson simply ignored the texts – which everyone told him to do. I thought the same thing as I watched the first few episodes of the TV show The Following (before I gave up, as the show got increasingly stupid). If Kevin Bacon simply chose not to get involved, wouldn’t the killer’s plan fall apart? The same question entered my mind when watching Non-Stop as well – but I guess that wouldn’t be overly dramatic.

Non-Stop isn’t a very good movie. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed Unknown starring Neeson a few years ago, knows how to make a movie, and it moves as a brisk pace and is watchable throughout. It’s a decent enough time waster, although it never really develops into anything more. In short, it’s like all the other early year Neeson action films except for The Gray – which was a legitimately great movie. The rest are ones you watch, kind of enjoy, and then immediately forget.

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