On paper, 2014's Non-Stop sounds exceedingly promising, especially with the combined talents of star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously collaborated on Unknown back in 2011. But in execution, the finished product is merely adequate, with slipshod scripting and an overwhelming amount of stupidity squandering the crackerjack premise. Instead of a taut mystery, Non-Stop is a meandering thriller which forgoes sophistication in favour of dumb action moments. If you're looking for a good plane movie, try the much more entertaining Air Force One or the suspenseful Wes Craven chiller Red Eye. Hell, even Flightplan and Snakes on a Plane have more worth.
A raging alcoholic, Bill Marks (Neeson) is a federal air marshal who boards a plane to London to fulfil his duties. Meeting kindly stranger Jen (Julianne Moore) on-board the flight, it's business as usual for Bill, but he soon becomes bombarded with text messages from an unknown source, who threatens to kill somebody every twenty minutes until $150 million is wired to an account of their choosing. Although Bill suspects a hoax, he soon realises that the threat is very real. Not sure who to trust, he enlists the help of Jen and kindly flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) to assist in locating the culprit without attracting attention from the rest of the passengers. However, as time goes by, Bill learns that he's being framed, with the passengers perceiving him as a hijacker. Out to stop a potential disaster, Bill is pitted against not only those responsible for his framing, but also the passengers and crew of the flight who utterly refuse to trust him.
Collet-Serra gets plenty of mileage out of the pressure-cooker environment of the plane, taking full advantage of the claustrophobic atmosphere. Plane thrillers are often effective, as the ensemble are stuck high in the air with no escape, limited resources and restricted space. The script (credited to three writers) is also effective in the way that it makes Bill fallible, delving into his flaws as a human being whilst also portraying him as a stand-up guy who helps a little girl deal with her fear of flying. Unfortunately, Non-Stop's ensemble is pure cliché; on top of the aforementioned little girl who's flying alone for the first time, there's an elderly couple, an NYPD officer, a few black people, and even a Muslim for some racial tension. It's all very predictable. Worse, the passengers are led to firmly believe that Bill has hijacked the plane, but he manages to bring them all to his side with a cringe-worthy speech admitting his shortcomings. Suddenly, they believe Bill is a good guy, follow his every command and apologise for being douchebags. Seriously?
Non-Stop keeps us in the dark for the majority of its running time, unspooling methodically as we are left to guess who the culprit is. However, pacing is not a strong suit for Collet-Serra. There is a great deal of tension at times, but at other moments the movie is utterly monotonous, in need of more snap and momentum. And without divulging too many spoilers, it must be said that the script is a cacophony of dumb. For the nefarious plot to play out as planned would require absolutely spot-on forethought regarding the psychology of a few hundred people, while it also depends on sheer dumb luck to succeed. There are many loose ends as well, including unexplained villainous insight into the secrets of Bill and others. Plus, those framing him could have easily disposed of Bill and revealed themselves much earlier in the game. I mean, after the media portrays Marks as a terrorist to the world, why the hell do they need him anymore? The answer, of course, is that the script simply demands it in order to pave the way for the big climax.
Rather than relying on sophistication for the finale, Non-Stop dabbles in over-the-top James Bond theatrics, forcing an action climax that's simply unnecessary, revealing the film to be the bone-headed mainstream thriller that it is. There's no class, bite or plausibility to the ending - Collet-Serra goes for cheap matinee thrills, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Added to this, the motivation behind this villainous plot is heavy-handed and preachy, attempting a mature message but coming off as forced instead.
To the credit of Collet-Serra, Non-Stop is fairly accomplished from a technical standpoint. As dumb as the action beats are, the choreography is solid, especially considering the tight spaces in which the hand-to-hand combat occurs. Neeson can still kick ass with the best of them, and the fights here are brutal and sharp. Neeson also remains an agreeable protagonist, continuing his quest to become one of the most unlikely action heroes of recent years. He's a reliable, muscular performer, and he commands attention with his authoritative line delivery. Neeson is easily Non-Stop's biggest asset, and it's hard to imagine any other actor nailing the balance between Everyman and badass so perfectly. The supporting cast fares adequately, with Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery both delivering amiable performances, while Linus Roache is effective as the plane's captain. The rest of the ensemble are suspicious enough to make them suspects, yet have a few redeeming qualities to make you second-guess.
In the hands of a more sophisticated filmmaking team, Non-Stop might have attained greatness, but instead it's a nasty mainstream distraction which will be all but forgotten by year's end. It's riddled with Swiss cheese-like holes and has absolutely no sense of plausibility, though it does admittedly deliver some nice mystery elements and a few agreeably adrenaline-charged action beats. There's no getting over the myriad of flaws, but at least it's marginally better than Taken 2.