"Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?" So asks one character in Edgar Wright's excellent 2007 comedic tribute to buddy-cop movies, Hot Fuzz, in a moment meant to highlight the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that particular action-movie trope.
In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson doesn't fire two guns, nor does he jump through the air. He does, however, grab a gun in midair while in a zero-G nose-dive on a transatlantic flight, and fire said gun whilst floating through the cabin. In slow motion. It's Liam Neeson at his Neesoniest, and yet another entry in his expanding late-career bloom into gruff and commanding action hero.
Non-Stop bears a surface similarity to the glossy European-style high trash of 2008's Taken, but Neeson's Bill Marks in this film is a far cry from the ex-CIA operative — "with a very particular set of skills" — he played in that film. Marks is a Federal Air Marshal, and his particular skills largely involve numbing himself with a very Irish coffee on the way to his next flight and managing to have a smoke undetected in the airplane lavatory. The flight attendants on his regular New York-London route know his habits well enough that they bring him bottled water when he futilely orders a gin and tonic.
We see the flight as he sees it: hazily, as an endless parade of potential evildoers, even though chances are that in the course of his air-marshal career — which he's landed in after a personal tragedy gets him kicked off the police force — it's unlikely he'll ever share a cabin with an actual terrorist.
Except, of course, on this day: The secure network Marks uses to communicate with the TSA is breached and he begins receiving texts from a passenger on his flight, who claims someone on the plane will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specified bank account. So begins a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, as Marks tries to solve an increasing number of murders on this transatlantic express.
The film's early look through Marks' eyes at his fellow fliers winds up being extremely important; Non-Stop is less a nonstop actioner and more a high-flying whodunit. As such, it's important for director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach to keep viewers guessing until the big reveal.
They may go a little overboard: Of the plane's 150 passengers, a remarkably high percentage spend time as potential suspects, making this jet into a flying tin can of red herring. The confusion over the identity of the killer, who mysteriously manages to text Marks constantly, as well as killing multiple people mid-flight without being detected, also serves to leave the marshal barely in control of the passengers. For a variety of reasons, they think it's Marks himself who's causing the chaos and perhaps even hijacking the flight.
Non-Stop isn't a great film; it may not even be very good, and it's undeniably convoluted and silly. Yet I enjoyed nearly every moment. Sure, it's probably 15 minutes overlong, thanks to that excess of misdirection. Add to that the ham-handed politics of the real intentions of the hijacker once the big reveal finally comes — the culmination of an undercurrent of blunt political commentary about air security and prejudicial assumptions about terrorism that runs through the entire film.
But if it works, it's because Neeson and Collet-Serra, as well as Julianne Moore as Neeson's business-class seatmate Jen, are all fully aware of how ludicrous this exercise is. Witness the wry joke Collet-Serra uses to obscure onscreen expletives in text messages that would have otherwise given the film an R-rating, or the way Moore's breezy nonchalance provides a counterbalance to Neeson's studied intensity.
And especially take note of that mid-air gravity-free gun-grab, which is a winking celebration of everything that's completely absurd about this sort of film. Neeson does indeed have a very particular set of skills — in elevating the generic action thriller into guilt-free popcorn pleasure.