Airplane heist movies aren’t exactly in short supply, so we know going in that director Jaume Collet-Serra’s got lots of hurdles to jump with NON-STOP.
So many aircraft capers and crises have already been turned into blockbusters—redone, recycled, spat out and spoofed in flicks like AIRPORT (and its sequels), AIRPLANE!, DIE HARDER, FLIGHT 93, EXECUTIVE DECISION, and FLIGHT PLAN. We’ve already witnessed so many hijackings, bombings, poisonings, and crash-landings at the cinema that Hollywood’s got us half-convinced that we too could survive these scenarios if they befell us.
Heck, even NON-STOP star Liam Neeson already braved one of the most horrific plane crashes in modern film in his recent survival epic THE GREY.
How do you top all that?
Seems Collet-Serra was cognizant of the challenge ahead. Eager to make a new mile-high disaster that’ll stand out, the guy responsible for OPRHAN and HOUSE OF WAX (2005) throws a bit of everything at the screen to see what sticks—hostages, bombs, poison, smuggled drugs, and F-15 fighters escorts eager to “neutralize” any ground threat. He also peppers the pic with an odd mix of old fashioned red herrings and state-of-the-art technology, rendering NON-STOP the bastard child of PASSENGER 57, TAKEN, and PHONE BOOTH.
Here’s the deal: Bill Marks (Neeson) is an alcoholic air marshal who—whether he wants it or not—is given a chance to man up and rescue his non-stop transatlantic flight (New York to London) after receiving a text from an anonymous crook who says he’ll kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless $150 million (one mill per soul) is wired to an offshore account.
We learn our mystery texter must be someone else on board because the wireless network he and Marks use is exclusive to that plane. We can tell Marks takes his job seriously (even if his personal life is in shambles) but discover he isn’t above bending the rules to suit his own needs (he sneaks smokes in the restroom). He gets the jitters during takeoff (a generalized fear of flying would be too familiar a trope) and clutches his daughter’s old ribbon for courage.
Marks’ nerves settle after pretty passenger Jen (Julianne Moore) sits next to him (after a game of musical chairs) and talks him through departure. Jen’s got her own baggage—pun intended—stemming from a cardiac condition that changed her outlook, and trusts that her grizzled neighbor has a good heart (again with the pun, ouch). But it’s all business after Bill receives the first of many menacing messages on his private line: Trays-up, belts off, and skip the peanuts, thank you very much.
The sadistic sender could be anybody, including one of the familiar airline staffers. No one’s above suspicion—even Marks’ slick-haired partner, Hammond—but the writers nevertheless offer a grab-bag of archetypes and loose motives to occupy our detective skills. And nearly all of them says or does something that rubs Marks the wrong way. The texting terrorist could be persnickety wireless technician Zack (Nate Parker), geeky schoolteacher Tom (Scoot McNairy), or stuffy executive Frank (Charles Wheeler). Maybe dedicated stewardess Nancy (Michelle Dockery) is in on it with her secret beau, copilot Kyle (Jason Butler Harner). Tough-nosed Reilly might be covering something with his intrusive bravado, and it could be argued that soft-spoken Dr. Fahim complies with Marks’ demands only to compensate for any prejudices aroused by his physical appearance.
Even Jen could be involved. And there’s always the possibility that Marks, with nothing to lose and everything to prove, is our culprit (or conspirator). We’ve been conditioned to dismiss logic and reason whenever movie cops, spies, and soldiers are blamed for the tragedies they’re trying to avert by outsiders who lack full knowledge of the situation. Our guts tell us to root for the heroes—forsaking all incriminating evidence against them—but cinema’s blowhard bureaucrats needn’t always be wrong when blaming the rogue in their midst.
Then again, everyone might be exactly who he or she appears to be: Hip-hopper Travis (Corey Parker) could be just another teenager with headphones, expensive sneakers, and an authority complex. The little girl flying alone for the first time is most assuredly benign; she keeps Marks’ paternal instincts on high alert.
The entire second act is little more than a game of CLUE at 20,000 feet. Marks orders Captain McMillan (Linus Roache) not to cut the plane’s wi-fi so he can stall the villain. Naturally, this means the passengers are likewise free to use their iPhones to let family back home know they’ve been taken hostage—or that they believe they’ve been taken hostage, or something. A few of them record Marks’ rants and arrests and post the videos on YouTube for the world to see, and in minutes the passengers are watching their own news story unfold on seat-mounted TV monitors. Uncertain that Marks was their savior to begin with, they plot mutiny.
The feedback loop of instant media coverage contributes to the climax, though it’s unclear why one person’s footage would prove more significant than another’s until it’s actually watched, or why Marks would want to review video on this phone but not that one. It’s just one of many implausible or unexplained quirks that—along with several liberties taken with the laws of physics—we’re supposed to accept.
Other air-tech figures in the script. Early on, Marks asks Nancy and Jen to help scan live feeds from a half-dozen on-board surveillance cameras and circle any unusual-looking passengers. Later, Marks tests Zack’s telecom skills by having him triangulate the bad guy’s source device. In one of the film’s few truly breathless sequences, Marks stalks the aisles, gun poised, listening for the telltale ring that’ll ID his perp.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie centers on Marks’ ill-begotten attempts to restore order and clear his name. The agitated marshal repeatedly questions and frisks the passengers, whom he orders to remain seated with arms raised or hands placed on the seats in front of them. When folks start demanding to know what’s wrong, he barks and bullies them. His searches yield small clues, each of which only exacerbates Marks’ mounting frustration. As a last resort, Bill placates the cabin with the promise of “free international travel for a year” if everyone complies. It’s a funny moment, and one that effectively questions our priorities as consumer / citizens. The security ramifications of our post-9/11 world are similarly scrutinized, but whatever big point Collet-Serra hoped to make comes too late in his mediocre actioner to matter.
Neeson and Moore are pack mules here, shouldering a banal burden. With his husky voice, crooked profile, and crow’s feet, the Jedi-Spy charms again in “mature cop” mode (his character's initials here are the same as in TAKEN), but neither Neeson nor Moore can carry a screenplay with this much drag.
2 out of 4 stars