(SPOILERS) I’d assumed latest picture in Liam Neeson’s career rebirth as an Action Lunk came from the Luc Besson stable. And I continued under that illusion all the way up to the point where I checked up on the legion of producers. The incredible tin ear for dialogue and profound lack of self-consciousness shown towards its dopey sentimentality and swathe of clichés marked it out as a Gallic piece of nonsense to rival Taken (remember poor Liam getting upset at his daughter’s birthday party?) Non-Stop really needed to embrace its absurdity to fully click, perhaps not in the geek-baiting manner of Snakes on a Plane, but through a willingness to follow through on the mental set-up. That it’s so entertaining is all down to director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also brought lashings of style to another movie that started well but turned into a bit of let-down; Unknown.
The director and star obviously get on; they have Run All Night up next, where Neeson’s an “aging hitman”. Just don’t get Liam to smile next time, Jaume. It’s the most uncomfortable thing you’ve ever seen; the very act looks as if it’s about to bring him to tears or dislocate his jaw.
Collet-Serra is one director who really deserves the opportunity to prove himself on an A-picture. Instead he’s stuck rehashing over-familiar storylines and plot devices. One might argue Collet-Serra makes some capital on prior associations with Unknown in the screenplay by Chris Roach (I’m sure he’s proud of those WWF credits), John W Richardson and Ryan Engle. Is Liam suffering from a split personality? Could he be both saviour of the plane that holds a mysteriously evil texting mastermind and that mysteriously evil texting mastermind? The thought stayed with me for longer than it probably should have, but as neither Neeson nor Collet-Serra have shown much appetite for originality of late I couldn’t dismiss it as too far-fetched.
That the reveal is so mundane, and the perpetrators motives so confused (they’re trying to expose the US’ lack of security by taking down one of their planes?!!), can only be a disappointment. At the point two of the passengers stand to reveal their nefariousness, the thrilling notion that, in some beserk riff on Murder on the Orient Express, everyone on board would be revealed to be in on the plot, out to take down poor Liam suggested itself. Alas it was not to be. I couldn’t even take comfort in the most unlikely suspect (the little girl Neeson talks to at the start, to show how he’s a nice guy deep down despite stinking of booze and fags) turning out to be a murderous little oik. After all, Collet-Serra also directed Orphan.
Nevertheless, the movie makes much momentum from the steady barrage of tropes it lobs at the audience. Neeson’s air marshal Bill Marks is a burnt out alcoholic and nicotine–junkie. You’d almost believe the writers were “inspired” by Denzel in Flight. Wouldn’t it have been fantastic if Neeson had spent the entire proceedings pissed out of his gourd, but still throwing punches with the best of them and solving the crime (like The Thin Man, but more bone-crunching and not very romantic)? Instead he looks upset or intense, always his main modes of expression, like he’s been caught in a state of perpetually mid-soiling himself. For a man so tall, Neeson finds it surprisingly easy to accommodate himself on board. We see from his passport that he was born in Ireland, but his use of American English spellings in his text messages announces that either he, or the special effects crew, have spent 99% of their time across the Pond.
The texting device is familiar, but has a few nice quirks; when a damaged phone’s messages appear on screen, the imagery is fractured and fuzzy. What’s most impressive is how Collet-Serra sustains the tension in this environment. And credit to the writers (I need to throw a morcel their way, I suppose), this should run out of steam long before it does. There’s no small hilarity to see Neeson breaking every taboo of post-911 inflight behaviour with his every action, much to the consternation of all aboard (and in particular Corey Stoll’s New York cop; the John McClane who doesn’t). And for a time at least, we share his bafflement as to what’s going on.
To help things along, there are a series of surprisingly deft action scenes. The director stages an outstanding fight in a cramped toilet cubicle, one that rivals Connery’s altercations in similarly confined surroundings in From Russia With Love and Diamonds are Forever. There’s also a magnificent dust up between Neeson and an array of passengers attempting to take the big man down but resoundingly failing (it’s like the Burley Brawl from The Matrix Reloaded, but good). And the first kill is a lovely little twister; having been warned someone is to die in the next 10 minutes, Liam not only can’t prevent it, but the victim is revealed to be at his own hands.
What’s ultimately disappointing is how stodgy the parade of clichés is. It invites Airplane! asides every few minutes. The (inherently) dubious looking Middle Eastern traveller is a noble English doctor (of course he is!); the initial antagonism between Neeson and Stoll becomes a cute bromance (Neeson tells Stoll he’s a much better cop than he ever was; so, that’s why Neeson beat the living shit out of him with barely a flick of the wrist); the moment where everything stops for Neeson to pour his heart out to all present. It should be magnificent folly, but it’s just toe-curling. Likewise, the sheer crazy of the plane’s climactic landing doesn’t sufficiently revel in the unlikeliness of it all.
Neeson only has himself to blame for staying on this career path, although his bank balance is surely amenable. The supporting actors are to be sympathised with, however. Julianne Moore, still looking very lovely, is consigned to the plucky female part. Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o’s Grace Jones haircut makes an impression, but her performance doesn’t. Scoot McNairy balances all those strong indie roles by paying the bills, but really he isn’t very good (he has bugger all to work with, though). There’s also Linus Roache and Shea Whigham (well he had to be in here somewhere, didn’t he?)
Non-Stop’s unlikely to disappoint anyone. Why would you go and see a movie with that title and expert golden nuggets? It’s an expertly put together piece of hokum that just occasionally breaks into the territory of a great thriller. But mostly it’s content to coast on the familiarity of its set-up and the ludicrousness of its twists. However, the most worrying part of the movie isn’t the script that acts like Zucker/Abrahams never happened, or the under-use of the talent. It comes right at the end, as Neeson and Moore share a moment on the tarmac. Moore says something chortlesome and Liam smiles. And there it is. Like the act is causing the man unimaginable, inconceivable pain. Like he’d rather be anywhere than pretending he ever laughs or ever finds anything remotely amusing. There’s good reason the last time he played up the funny was way back in High Spirits.