Yet another standard-issue thriller — this one starring the ever-watchable Liam Neeson on leading man duties — “Non-Stop” is a perfect guilty pleasure. So what if the plot makes little sense? The purpose of this popcorn movie is for its audience to check its collective brain at the door and soak up the film’s amusing sense of escalating suspense and calculated interplay between characters for the dumb fun of it all.
Neeson plays federal air marshal Bill Marks. Bill is an alcoholic with a wee chip on his shoulder. You know the archetype. Bill gets panicked during takeoffs no matter how much time he spends in the air; it is his job, after all. Bill winds up seated next to Julianne Moore’s dorky professional woman Jen Summers (witness Moore’s clever take on the sexy librarian). The couple will get to know each other much better during their eventful transatlantic flight.
The presence of a second air marshal onboard jumpstarts the film’s lively second act. It’s not much of a spoiler to alert you to the fact that people perish during Bill’s furious attempts to identify a mystery hostage-taker onboard.
Bill receives a text on his cell-phone from a fellow passenger. The message demands an immediate bank transfer of $150 million within 20 minutes, or else one of Bill’s unsuspecting seatmates will die. Another will be killed for every additional 20 minutes that passes until the money is delivered.
The limited areas of the airplane’s choked interior allows director Jaume Collet-Serra (the director of “Unknown,” the film that established Liam Neeson as an action-film leading man) to maximize the film’s well-placed budget toward a spectacular climax that pays off on the movie’s goofy premise.
Cinematographer Flavio Labiano takes advantage of stylish production and lighting elements to give the movie an intriguing modern look. An inventive use of over-layered text graphics during text exchanges between Bill and the unknown villain, adds to the film’s glossy and fluid visual designs. “Aqualantic” is the name of the airline. The made-up title speaks to the screenwriters’ cool sense for blending style with substance. A casting masterstroke places Michelle Dockery (of "Downton Abbey" fame) opposite Lupita Nyong (“12 Years a Slave”) as the flight’s pair of fearless stewardesses. Both actresses contribute mightily in supporting roles that are anything but throwaway.
Neeson and Moore share a groovy chemistry that elevates the thriller MacGuffin underpinning the action. Bill trusts Jen enough to confide in her regarding the crisis. Bill needs Jen’s help, and he doesn’t think twice about requesting it. Still, Bill has doubts about Jen as a possible suspect in the midst of escalating tragedies that unfold.
The movie stays well within its PG-13 rating confines. Hardly a drop of blood is shown. Collet-Serra keeps the tone focused and clean, with a touch of romantic tension for good measure. Humor thrives amid the chaos that afflicts the film’s large-but-contained group of miscellaneous character types. The filmmakers aren’t above the camp fun on display. Everyone is in on the joke — including you.
Rated PG-13. 110 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)