Liam Neeson kills a man in the airplane lavatory at 40,000 feet. Snaps his neck like a chicken bone. You now know everything necessary to determine whether Non-Stop is for you. Neeson remains the primary selling point and his latter-day reincarnation as second-tier action star holds a surprising amount of cheesy fun. Who doesn't love watching a hulking Irishmen pound the world's miscreants into chuck steak? Non-Stop gives him an unstable character, a locked room mystery and a whole plane full of people to menace. That, in essence, is all it needs to do.
Which is to say that, while Non-Stop doesn't strictly fit the definition of good, it is never less than entertaining. Its plot more or less holds water, its premise carries some built-in enjoyment, and director Jaume Collet-Serra never slows down the pace. Neeson plays an alcoholic Air Marshall flirting with the abyss. Accusations of paranoia and strong-arming innocents dog him as he boards a seemingly innocuous trans-Atlantic flight, possibly against orders. Then halfway across the ocean, he gets a text from someone onboard. It threatens to kill one person onboard every twenty minutes unless Neeson's Bill Marks arranges for $150 million to be wired to the ubiquitous secret bank account.
The set-up carries some real elegance, with a ticking clock and a planeload full of suspects who can't be alerted to the fact that he's hunting for a killer. He gets some help from Julianne Moore's prickly gal Friday, who may herself be a suspect depending on what stage of the proceedings we’re at. Collet-Serra punctuates the mystery with occasional bouts of strangle-you-with-the-luggage-strap mayhem, well-presented and delivered with just enough absurdity to remind us to lighten up.
It'd be tougher if the central scheme didn't hold water. It's goofy and involves a certain amount of hand-waving, but it also address most of the biggest “yeah but” questions, and gives ample opportunity to figure out the bad guy before Neeson does. That's enough to turn off the brain and let Non-Stop do its job, content in the knowledge that it won't go off the rails. A healthy dose of indulgence helps, though with this leading man, we can let the dodgy stuff slide much more readily.
That's especially important when Non-Stop insists on wading out past its depth in the final reel. Mostly content to serve as a simple thrill ride, it suddenly spouts Something Very Important to Say, and can’t quite manage the heavy lifting. It's a key issue and it deserves a more in-depth examination that a bit of dross like this can support.
On the other hand, exploitation cinema has a long and proud history of wading out past its depth, and with a thoroughbred like Neeson, you're inclined to let the pretense slide. Moore does well too -- brightening an otherwise throwaway role that she had every right to phone in -- as does a large supporting cast whose central job is to keep us guessing. The assembled pieces click in all the right ways, and if the results sometimes feel sillier than you'd expect, at least it’s the friendly, jovial silliness that makes for diverting entertainment. Neeson, at least, understand that that's part of the equation, and rolls with the less plausible moments just as readily as he pound miscreants into the dirt. He and Collet-Serra clearly have a good working relationship (they collaborated on Unknown and have a third film in the wings), and if he intends to close his career with these kinds of movies, he certainly has a fine sense of how to do it right. Non-Stop couldn't exist without guys like him, and even if it did, it couldn't skate by with quite as much grace.