Mourning a personal tragedy, embittered, alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is on an assignment, safeguarding a transatlantic flight from New York to London. He finds himself in a tense situation when an unknown passenger sends him a text message threatening to kill someone on board unless the airline pays $150 million dollars into a secure bank account. Aided by plucky passenger Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), Marks goes to increasingly desperate lengths to uncover the blackmailer's identity. As the stakes are raised, people start dying and Marks grows increasingly paranoid as it starts to look like he is being set up.
Thirty years after the ludicrous Airport series finally crashed and burned the genre underwent an unexpected reinvention with airborne thrillers like Flightplan (2005) and Red Eye (2005) that were more sober in tone, armed with committed, non-campy performances albeit on close inspection just as melodramatic in terms of plot. Non-Stop continues this new trend only with Liam Neeson on familiar craggy action hero form in place of the brittle, more vulnerable heroines essayed by Jodie Foster and Rachel McAdams in previous films. As a consequence the film does perhaps leave less room for doubt as to whether the ever-formidable, unflappable Neeson will get to the bottom of the mystery which leaves this less taut than it ought to be. Even so, the script co-authored by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle invests Marks with his own vulnerabilities and as usual, Neeson inhabits the role with such conviction, no matter how implausible things get, we are with him every step of the way.
Following a mildly successful collaboration on Unknown (2011) veteran action movie mogul Joel Silver re-teams Neeson with director Jaume Collet-Sera who once again mounts this as an intricate murder-mystery-suspense piece rather than adhere to the visceral action formula of Taken (2008). Fans of Liam Neeson brutalizing bad guys can revel in a claustrophobic, limb-twisting tussle inside a toilet liable to make people wince and the ridiculous though undeniably exhilarating all-action-zero-gravity climax. Yet overall the plot admirably relies on Marks piecing things together one clue at a time whilst enduring the suspicion of not only fellow passengers but his superiors back on terra firma. As his own suspicions shift from one dodgy-looking character to another the film unveils an interestingly eclectic supporting cast comprised of established stars (the ever-endearing Julianne Moore), up-and-coming talent (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o from 12 Years a Slave (2013), super sexy Bar Paly from Pain & Gain (2013)), TV favourites (Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery) and quirky character actors (Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Anson Mount, Shea Whigham).
Sadly, the film squanders its fine cast. Most of the characters are stock Seventies disaster movie types with Dockery a gutsy air hostess who regrettably does not end up flying the plane (they missed a trick there) and youngster Quinn McColgan as a nervous little girl who draws out the sensitive side in the otherwise terse and taciturn Marks. To the screenwriters' credit the film does weave a suspenseful layer of ambiguity about its supporting players whose conflicting and often changeable reactions to various events do have a vague ring of truth. Late into the third act the film takes a wild stab at social commentary linking paranoid fears about airline security with the Iraq war and inevitably raises the ghost of September 11th, 2001. This is possibly in bad taste given the filmmakers have set out to craft an entertainment rather than an ambitious factual drama along the lines of United 93 (2006). On the other hand, given Seventies exploitation movies were the first to deal with issues that arose from the Vietnam war, why shouldn't the glossy trash of today set out to exorcise the ghosts of 9/11? Additionally, Non-Stop distinguishes itself with a neat line in wry humour that coupled with Neeson's commitment and the odd suspenseful moment leaves it easy to enjoy.