In what has to be one of the most unlikely, but undeniably successful late career resurgences, Liam Neeson - the venerable, 61-year old Irish actor - is a bonafide, ass-kicking action superstar.
Initially gaining fame over two decades ago in mostly dramatic period pieces (Schindler’s List, Nell, Michael Collins), Neeson has defied expectations and re-invented the action movie genre for old guys with recent films like Taken (2008) and The Grey (2011). Neeson is able to pull this off because he makes it all believable (for the most part, at least).
His gravitas as an actor certainly helps, but the main thing is that he chooses these roles wisely - with a mixture of drama, action, and believability (the last of which can be a crucial element with action movies, especially with an older guy at the center). Take the similarly aged Bruce Willis for an example, is any really buying into or even enjoying the Die Hard series as he continues to age and the films grow more and more outrageous? With Neeson things are different - and as long as he keeps raking in the box office receipts, there will be more action movies featuring him.
Neeson’s latest is Non-Stop, in which he plays Bill Marks, an air marshal forced into action during a transatlantic flight. Once aboard, he receives a mysterious series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk every 20 minutes unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account. On top of that, the terrorist is framing him for the whole thing. Marks must simultaneously find the terrorist, save the passengers, and clear his name - all from 30,000 feet in the air.
And yes, I remember saying that Neeson’s action films are, by-and-large, believable. And while Non-Stop certainly has it moments of disbelief (what modern day action film does not?), Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra make it plausible. Again, for the most part (the slow-mo, near zero-gravity shoot-out is pretty cool, but a bit over the top).
Overall, the action is solid, well-choreographed, and mostly self-contained, including a claustrophobic fight in a tiny airplane lavatory (and you thought joining the mile high club was cramped and difficult). Neeson beats people up and down the narrow aisles and across the cramped seat rows. He has proven that he is not one to take lightly in a fight, especially when it comes to kidnappers (Taken), wolves (The Grey), and now, hijackers.
As expected, the film does fall victim to an obscene amount of action and/or airplane movie clichés, especially when it comes to character traits and development. Neeson is an emotionally damaged, alcoholic former cop with a renegade streak (for other examples of this, see every other cop movie ever made). Coincidentally, Neeson’s air marshal character is also afraid of flying (well the take-off mostly, he explains). Neeson’s character is broken and without much to live for, but by saving his fellow passengers, he can ultimately save himself and . . . well, you know where this is going.
The film is built with a solid ensemble cast of mostly underwritten characters behind Neeson. Julianne Moore plays a fellow passenger trying to help (or is she?), Scoot McNairy is a teacher caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and recent Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong’o (in an unfortunately nearly non-existent role) are flight attendants, and fellow TV stars Corey Stoll (House of Cards) and Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) play an angry NYPD officer and a compromised air marshal, respectively. And finally, Shea Whigham, mostly recently seen in HBO’s True Detective, lends his voice throughout the film as Neeson’s boss on the ground.
There are a multitude of twists (some more clever than others) than keep the audience guessing, yet nothing feels forced or completely out of left field. Nearly everyone on the plane gets his or her turn as a suspect and red herring (and in some cases, ultimately, a victim). This keeps the villain’s identity and motive a well-guarded secret right up until the end. As for that specifically, the "villain" does get a bit shortchanged and the motive is underdeveloped, but neither is really that important in the grand scheme of things because Non-Stop is all about the mystery and action leading up to it - two areas the film excels at.
Non-Stop clearly has its faults, but it is still a gripping and exciting action flick that makes it easier to overlook its anticipated shortcomings. It tries to be a fun mix of 1970’s Airport and Murder on the Orient Express and it almost pulls it off. Of course, with Liam Neeson in command, anything is believable. Just sit back and enjoy the flight.
* * * * out of 5 stars
Non-Stop opens in theatres nationwide on Friday, February 28
This review originally appeared on Chris's official review page. Check it out and other reviews on Examiner.com: http://www.examiner.com/indie-movie-in-new-orleans/chris-henson