There are certain film types that I’m a bit of a pushover for. Anything set in a snowy and icy location for example (such as Ice Station Zebra or The Thing) with deserts a close runner up (The Mummy or Sahara), or else stories set on trains (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes) submarines (The Hunt for Red October, Ice Station Zebra again) or planes (Airport, Air Force One, Red Eye, Flight Plan). Any film in one of those categories already has me on side by default, and has to be really bad to alienate me.
Non-Stop is certainly not a bad film, but nor is it a particularly good or even memorable one. The basic premise is that while on duty on a flight bound to London, burned-out US Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a series of threatening text messages over a secure network telling him that people will start to die if the authorities don’t pay up $150 million. Marks goes all-out to identify the perpetrator but in doing so only makes himself look increasingly like a demented hijacker in the process, and it turns out that the money isn’t even the objective of those behind the plot after all.
Much though I like the claustrophobic setting of the jetliner, I found that the film struggled to get its pace right. The first 20 minutes has all the appeal of being stuck in an airport departure lounge, and then once the first threatening text message is received there’s an almost instant assumption by all concerned that Marks – whom they knew and trusted up to this point – is the hijacker. That sort of ‘wrongly accused man trying to clear himself and save the day’ plot is both a massive cliché and also serves up a lot of frustration in what is actually more of an Agatha Christie locked room murder mystery or a Sherlock Holmes 1940s B-Movie starring Basil Rathbone, rather than the lost Hitchcock masterpiece the film is frequently trying to persuade us it is.
There’s lot of running around by Marks but everyone else is left broadly in the dark which thwarts the effective build up of tension. Instead we get Marks pretty much botch up every line of investigation and show a staggering inability to manage a crowd without sending them into either revolt or panic by being generally rude and violent toward everyone in sight. In anyone else’s hands the character would just be absurd; but Neeson brings to the role a level of innate dignity and gravitas even when portraying a washed-up alcoholic that he just about manages to bring you along for the journey on his side and sustain the credibility just on the right side of the line even when the plot gets ludicrous.
As well as Neeson, there’s an uncommonly good cast that includes Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Omar Metwally, Nate Parker and Corey Stoll as fellow passengers, Lupita Nyong’o and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as flight attendants, with Linus Roache and Jason Butler Harner as the pilots – any one of whom might be the real hijacker and killer. The director is Jaume Collet-Serra, who worked with Neeson on Unknown which had a very similar story approach and visual feel to it; here he adds an eye-catching presentation style to show the menacing text messages that seems partially inspired by BBC’s Sherlock but heightened to good effect and even occasionally a rare display of humour – notice how characters obscure the messages by moving in front of them or how a damaged phone throws up glitchy displays.
It has to be admitted that Non-Stop contains plot holes and script oversights by the barrel full, and of course things accelerate to an all-action final act that defies the rules of both physics and common sense and certainly strains the credibility of the CGI FX. The ultimate solution and reveal will more likely have you rolling your eyes than gripping your chair arms, but equally the climax of film does finally achieve the heightened sense of desperation and thrills that’s been missing from the middle section. That means the film at least ends with a satisfying roller coaster ride that makes up for some of the earlier frustrations and longeurs during the time when Marks is getting showered by red herrings and false leads that go nowhere.
On the whole, then, it’s a perfectly fine and fun one hour and forty minutes, a workmanlike product proficiently executed with some added value and which delivers exactly what you’d expect of it based on the film poster. It doesn’t really surprise and it’s certainly no masterpiece, but these day a film that does exactly what it says on the tin is no bad thing and no mean feat.
Or maybe that’s my predilection for airplane movies kicking in again. I did warn you. If you doubt me, I guess you’ll have to watch Non-Stop yourself to check the objectivity of my conclusions…
Non-Stop is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. There’s a very minimal collection of short EPK featurettes and cast interviews included.