Ever since 2009's surprise hit Taken, Liam Neeson has managed to carve out a niche for himself as a kind of older action star, usually releasing one movie every year that spotlights his rugged, take no prisoners, grizzled old man persona. That persona is entertaining in and of itself, never mind the plot or the characters or even the director (it was certainly the best part of Taken). Here once again, we have our annual Liam Neeson saves the day routine action thriller that manages to be pretty entertaining once more simply because of Neeson, as what else we're stuck with is a fairly ludicrous plot that would never in a million years be plausible in reality, but Neeson brings just enough gravitas to take us with him for the ride.
Which is what this movie is, pretty much a ride all the way through. Neeson is over the hill, paranoid, alcoholic ex-cop Bill Marks, who now works as an air marshal and is scheduled to be on a six-hour flight to London. Once on the plane he makes first contact with several passengers, all of whom have to be introduced with one random character trait so that we have reason to suspect each of them of being the terrorist at some point in the movie. Especially laughable is Julianne Moore, cashing a paycheck as a quirky passenger who just has to have the window seat (for a very special and heartwarming reason, as we'll find out later) and alternately annoys/endears herself to Bill with her incessant chattering. There's also a scared little girl flying alone, a rude passenger who keeps getting his luggage in Bill's way, another paranoid cop (Corey Stoll) who looks immediately suspicious (so he's clearly the red herring) and the nice flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey) who's on Bill's side no matter what.
Once the plane takes off Bill starts getting threatening anonymous texts from someone on the flight who claims that a person will die every twenty minutes unless he gets $150 million wired to an account. This sets up the conflict for the rest of the film, as Bill must try to find the passenger and every action he takes seems to implicate himself as the culprit, which follows exactly according to the hijacker's plan. The twists this movie takes in order to get Bill to implicate himself requires huge suspension of disbelief (this guy's plan really had to go exactly right at every single turn and would seem to require his psychically knowing when and how things will go wrong too), and the passengers of course start getting rowdy and screwing things up, but for most of the movie I must admit it's never boring and seeing the dude drive Liam Neeson crazier and crazier as he resorts to even more drastic attempts to find him is pretty fun, almost like an airplane set game of Clue. But then, as the climax approaches things get really out of control and the ultimate third act motivations of the terrorist is so far out of left field that it just feels like a stupid attempt to tie in significant meaning to the devious plan and make the movie feel serious all of a sudden, when it really should have stayed on purely nutty territory all along (plus, the attempts made to turn the character's plot machinations upside down make zero sense and start to make events that happened earlier in the movie seem even more illogical).
But for a strictly mindless action movie, it works well as long as you go into it with fairly low expectations. This the kind of movie I can see playing on cable for years to come, as a purely escapist way to pass the time in the middle of the night when you're channel surfing and nothing else is on. That may sound like some pretty low praise, and to be sure this is not the greatest action movie you'll ever see, but for Liam Neeson's recent output, I actually think it's much better than the Taken series, which took itself way too seriously and had an ugly filmmaking style to go with it, while Non-Stop is fast-paced and unintentionally funny enough to keep you entertained throughout.
* * 1/2