by Callum Petch
Non-Stop works best if you go into it blind, as I did. I knew nothing about this film going in, hadn’t seen a trailer, nor an advertisement, nor nothing. Just the one vague poster of star Liam Neeson with his gun drawn in a John Woo-ish pose, an even vaguer tagline “The hacking was just the beginning” and a rare positive review from The AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. That’s it. I am glad that that’s all I knew because it meant that I had no preconceptions other than the hope that, at most, it would be an enjoyably dumb thriller; the kind that Liam Neeson has spent over half a decade re-inventing his career with. You deserve to go in with that similar kind of sentiment, because you should see Non-Stop. So, if you want to know more than that vague recommendation or you need selling on the film, because the best thing the film has going for it takes a while to become apparent and it is best to go in not expecting it, then continue reading. If, on the other hand, an urging to go and see it by a cantankerous stranger is all you need, then stop reading now and go and see Non-Stop. Your choice, incidentally, is the preferable one.
Are you gone?
I’ll take that as an “I’m gone” or an “I don’t care”. OK, then.
Non-Stop works chiefly for two reasons. The first is that it commits fully to its high-concept premise, keeping the focus on Neeson and his desperate attempts to find out who’s behind the threat throughout and wringing every last possible piece of tension from it. The second reason is that, despite (or, hell, perhaps even because of) its suspension-of-disbelief premise, Non-Stop is actually a pretty brutal subversion and deconstruction of the kind of one-man-army loner-hero action-thrillers that have become Neeson’s bread and butter over the past few years. Not as much as you’re probably thinking, but still more so than I was both expecting and thought that studios would allow in their mid-budget action vehicles.
But we shall get to that. The premise: Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US Federal Air Marshall who is an alcoholic, paranoid and very irritable and unstable fellow. He’s marshalling a non-stop flight from New York to London filled with a veritable who’s-who of character actors and “Hey, it’s that one guy from that one thing!” (Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Michelle Doherty, Lupita Nyong’o, Scoot McNairy among many others) when his phone is hacked. Someone on the plane is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an account. So, Marks is on a race against time to find the person responsible… except that said account is under Marks’ name and his prior history, as well as nearly everything he ends up doing on the plane trying to find the person responsible, makes him out to be the number one suspect to everyone except himself.
And that’s where the deconstruction comes in. See, Marks behaves much like the hero of any other Liam Neeson vehicle (with the exception of The Grey, as anyone who actually watched that film will quite happily tell you). He strides about in fury, he refuses to tell anybody else about what’s really going on, he’s invasive, accusing, he roughs up suspects if they’re not immediately co-operative, he trusts few and almost gleefully burns bridges with those he does the second that they appear to be hiding something. What separates Non-Stop from, say, Taken is that Marks is uniformly punished for his behaviour. Everything he does only riles up the other passengers, raises suspicion at himself and plays right into the villain’s hands. In other words: reality, more or less, ensues. It gets to the point where Marks arguably turns into a bigger villain than the one offing passengers and demonstrates just how much manipulation stories like these need to turn somebody like Marks into a guy that we root for. It’s not exactly subtle, and people more familiar with this kind of deconstruction will likely find nothing particularly original here, but it adds a nice layer of depth that the film, quite honestly, didn’t need to have but is most definitely appreciated.
Because, undoubtedly, this is a great thriller in its own right and that’s because it commits totally to its premise. The perspective is with Marks throughout, only occasionally cutting away to the other passengers voicing their legitimate concerns about Marks and even less occasionally (like, about 4 times after the plane gets into the air and before the finale kicks in) to a shot of the plane flying alone with no recognisable landmarks, just to re-enforce the fact that these people are alone and nobody else can save them. There are lots of long takes where the camera dollies along the aisles or follows Neeson as he accusingly stares out for the next possible suspect. Unless the action really heats up, Non-Stop does not particularly like quick cuts and that, combined with the almost singular focus on Marks (the film saves the unmasking of the villains until the finale; smartest choice it makes), helps keep the tension high.
In addition, director Juame Collet-Sera (who has worked with Neeson before on the not-very-good Unknown) and the film’s three writers (John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle) know how to turn the screws. People more insistent on thinking through the overall plot will get hung up on how seemingly unbelievable it gets, but the constant plot turns and the wrong-footing of Marks (again, almost everything the guy does plays into the villain’s hands) kept me enthralled throughout because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. How the villains would get one over on Marks, or which seemingly innocent character may actually have something to hide (or, more pertinently, is actually perfectly innocent but just happened to cough in the general direction of Marks) or when the villain would get in touch with Marks again. If nothing else, this is the most dreaded I have been by the sound of a ringing bell (Marks’ message alert) since Season 2 of Breaking Bad. It’s a pretty nerve-wracking film, is what I’m getting at here.
If I’m honest, the only things stopping Non-Stop from being the best thriller of the last five years are the last 20 – 30 minutes. When the film’s deconstructive undercurrent should go straight for the jugular, it instead pulls back; decides that that’s good enough and settles for an action-packed and slightly uplifting climax. I mean, it’s not a bad climax. Not in the slightest. It’s very exciting, basically encompassing everybody’s worst fears about being stuck on a plane, and contains the same stylish verve and tension that the thriller aspects demonstrated for the opening 70-odd minutes. But it is kinda disappointing to see the film, which had spent the prior 70 minutes being above it, relax into being a silly Liam Neeson action vehicle. Again, none of this is bad but it is a straight-forward climax that’s more crowd-please-y than what came before.
Oh, and I should comment on the motives of the villain: they’re dumb. The reveal of who’s behind the threat is great, unquestionably, and it helps patch over what would otherwise have been several gaping plot holes. But the reveal as to why they’re doing what they’re doing? It’s ridiculous, even for a movie with this concept. It didn’t derail the film too much for me, because almost as soon as their speechifying is done we’re straight into our silly action climax and the prior 70 minutes built up a lot of good will for me, but I know for a fact that it will be a deal-breaker for a lot of people who may have been lulled into believing they were watching a thriller with real brains beforehand. The problem comes from the fact that it makes the film’s subtext (not the deconstruction of Jack Bauer-type heroes, the other one that I’ve opted not to mention for this very reason) straight text, in a last-minute attempt to be a film with something to openly say. Your tolerance for this is going to depend on how much the destination on these kinds of things affects your overall enjoyment.
Because, make no mistake, Non-Stop is one hell of a ride. A smart, unbearably tense thriller that’s well acted and stylishly directed. A great deconstruction of the usual Liam Neeson action fare and a fun thriller in its own right. It may wuss out on the deconstruction and subversion element when it should be time to twist the knife, and the motivations of its villain are dumb in a bad way, but the film has earned enough good will by that point to allow itself the opportunity to have its big action climax. I went into Non-Stop with no expectations and was really impressed by what I saw and I see no reason why you can’t give it a chance, too. I really enjoyed this one.