Knowing as I do a couple of federal agents, I was quite happy to see traits I recognized in Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks, air marshal. The way he carries himself, and the way his eyes dart around taking in every small detail that he will later recite back, much to the awe of fellow passengers who may themselves barely remember doing the things he noticed. The drinking on the job part, not so much – I would imagine that most feds who love the booze are relatively controlled and keep it outside of work hours if only so their own partners don’t bust them, but in a movie that’s only depicting a few hours in the life, and needs to convey that Marks is a drunk, I’ll allow it.
Other things, I was less happy to see. But we’ll get to them.
As you probably know, the set-up for Non-Stop is nice and tight: on a transatlantic flight where he does not wish to be, Marks starts getting texts on his secure federal phone that someone will be killed every twenty minutes if he can’t find a way to get $150 million transferred to the mysterious texter’s bank account. Naturally, Marks is not inclined to negotiate, but he has failed to reckon with the fact that the person he’s dealing with is the kind of diabolical mega-mind, like Saw‘s John Kramer or the purveyors of David Fincher’s The Game, who can predict the behavior of pretty much everyone down to a tee, and has planned various stimuli accordingly. So at that first 20-minute mark, the person to die does so at the hands of Marks himself – acting in self-defense – in a manner that the villain knew he would do precisely then under the correct circumstances.
The person behind everything has to be hiding in plain sight somewhere on the plane, but who could it be? Is it one of the other famous faces: Julianne Moore, perhaps, or that chick from Downton Abbey playing the head flight attendant? Is it Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong’o? Linus Roache? Anson Mount? Could it possibly be someone whose name isn’t even on the poster? The movie does a good job of shifting around the red herrings of the moment to keep you guessing, and actually had me feeling edge-of-the-seat tension in one suspenseful moment that hinges upon…yes, you guessed it (not)…the sending of an email.
Neeson is essentially playing his Bad Cop character from The Lego Movie here, although to nobler ends; weirdly, and uncomfortably, he even behaves in a slightly racist manner a couple of times. We’re not talking Wolf of Wall Street “this is inherently bad behavior, and therefore it doesn’t have to be explicitly condemned onscreen” nastiness, but at least two honest-to-goodness moments which seem designed to make the audience root for an uppity black man to get put in his place for mildly hindering Liam Muthaphukkin’ Neeson. Now, to be fair, it’s possible those roles were written non race-specific, and this is actually a case of diverse casting, so I’m hesitant to judge the motives. But the outcome is mildly unpleasant.
Generally, with action movies, worrying about their politics seems beside the point. Even the most liberal anti-NRA moviegoer, for example, is usually capable of enjoying a film in which the hero saves the day with a gun, while the conservative religious crowd rarely has a problem with movies about aliens despite the fact that the Bible never specifically mentions God creating any other planets. It’s only when a movie that’s otherwise preposterous tries to insert seriousness in for a second that it becomes conspicuously annoying, and to explain further, I’ll have to delve into mild spoilers in the next paragraph. Don’t worry, I’m not going to reveal the identity of the perp…
Okay. This paragraph only. It is becoming annoyingly predictable who and what Hollywood will or won’t allow to be villains. You know full well that the guy in full Muslim garb is not going to be the bad guy, don’t you? I don’t mind that so much, because it plays on people’s fears and prejudices – average people on a plane are likely to unfairly profile that guy. The problem is that once I tell you that person is not the bad guy, I’ll bet you can kinda guess – using every caricature of modern movies that’s out there – what sort of villain we are in fact dealing with, and what their motives might be. After leading us on an enjoyable wild goose chase that finally gets to the “who,” you just kinda wish they’d shut their mouths about why.
ZOMG! Fake Geek Girl!!!
That aside, if you can put it aside, the script by former WWE writer Chris Roach and reality show editor John W. Richardson is nicely structured (if not always believable) – the murder every 20 minutes gimmick establishes a constant ticking clock, and the suspense over how it can be done without the killer showing his or her face is clever, all while building to the bigger question of what the end goal is. It’s marred by the occasional stupid misstep, like the aforementioned racism and the overly theatrical “hero speech/12-step confession” Neeson gives to all the passengers late in the game so as to rally them to his side (very un-federal agent-like). Those are things you’d forgive if the overall film were campier, but to coin an image I’m sure one of the writers would understand, you don’t throw Hulk Hogan into an MMA match.
I can’t entirely recommend Non-Stop, but I’m also not completely immune to its charms. How much you can weigh that balance will determine whether or not you feel the same.