This week, I was reminded of that vital component of my job when I saw the new Liam Neeson thriller “Non-Stop.” In it, he plays Bill Marks, a U.S. federal marshal who is forced to get on a six-hour flight from New York to London that he really doesn’t want to be on.
In the opening minutes of the film, Bill has been shown sneaking some whiskey, smoking a string of cigarettes and walking with a boozy, world-weary paranoia through the airport. It is his job to always be alert to any potential threat, but he’s been in the business so long that everyone has become a threat in his eyes.
But he’s stuck on the plane, and is trying to make the best of it when he receives a text from an unknown fellow passenger warning him that if $150 million isn’t transferred to a bank account within 20 minutes, someone onboard is going to be murdered. With a crowded plane flying over the open Atlantic Ocean, hours away from the nearest airport, Bill doesn’t have a lot of options to figure out who the threat is coming from.
And worse, he quickly realizes that he’s the victim of an elaborately planned setup designed to make him look like a disgruntled agent who has taken the plane hostage himself. This twist is a doozy, as it is so perfectly rendered that if it wasn’t Liam Neeson playing Bill, they might be wondering also if Bill is a lunatic with an axe to grind. And the twist also leads to a whole string of unforeseen consequences that neither Bill nor the audience could ever see coming.
But it is a “Liam Neeson thriller,” which over the past five years since the first “Taken” has become a genre unto itself. In these movies, you know that he’s going to be a badass dude with a bunch of special skills - ranging from hand-to-hand combat to expert marksmanship and the ability to drive insanely through the traffic of exotic world capitals - that will leave anyone who crosses him either whimpering with pain or downright dead.
But his movies also feature an above-average plot and a ferocious intensity rooted in his desire to save his family or the families of others. Neeson’s characters manage to be interchangeable yet unpredictable all at once, winding up in similar situations but always finding a unique way out of them. And they usually have a fundamental decency as they do here, with no sex scenes or nudity, very little foul language and a ton of action that is intense but never gruesome or bloody.
Sure, Neeson is once again perfect in this kind of role. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has been teaming up with Neeson on a string of thrillers that could wind up making the duo a modern-day version of Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant, keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace that befits the title, and a solid supporting cast led by Julianne Moore give Neeson plenty to play off of.
The non-stop plot twists in “Non-Stop” almost threatened to go too far and derail the movie. But that’s when I learned my lesson about a movie like this: to not analyze it for logic but enjoy it for fun. The way I learned it was through a heavyset, disabled man named Mitchell who rolled into the theatre on an indoor scooter before the film started and hoisted himself with great difficulty into an empty seat.
By the time he was safely seated, Mitchell was clearly excited for the movie to start and just eager to have the movie take flight. All throughout, his gasps of surprise and hilarious commentary about the action on screen added to rather than detracted from my own enjoyment of the film.
“The marshal is smoking AND drinking on board the flight? I’m never flying again!” was one retort. “This is never going to be used as an in-flight movie!” and “Fly the UN-friendly skies!” were all his creation, as well.
Mitchell was right on every one of those points, but he was also right most of all when he summed it up at the end.
“What a ride! But I’m glad I wasn’t on it!”
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.