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Non-Review Review: Non-Stop

At its best, Non-Stop evokes one of those mid-nineties high-tension high-altitude thrillers – movies about various crises unfolding on a plane, with a questionable hero wading in to help save the day. There’s a decidedly pulpy aspect to Non-Stop, as the film revels in the absurdity of its set-up and the contrived planning of the movie’s would-be skyjacker/ransomer. Those looking for a tightly-plotted thriller that withstands any level of critical thought would be best served to look elsewhere, but that’s entirely the point. Non-Stop basks in its minute-to-minute thrills, which it delivers with just enough consistency to maintain momentum.

The movie runs into problems though. Running to almost two hours, it’s impossible for the film to maintain the necessary level of tension for such an extended period. One sense that twenty minutes might have easily been trimmed from the film and tightened up the pacing a bit – after all, it’s not as if the plot hangs together particularly tightly as is. Non-Stop also runs into difficulties when it is forced to confront the fact that it is not – despite its best intentions – a hijacking movie from the mid-nineties. For better or worse, Non-Stop is set in the wake on 9/11, and the movie’s attempts to acknowledge that can’t help but feel a little forced.

Non-Stop is hardly an exceptional little thriller, but Neeson anchors it well and the movie often feels like an affectionately pulpy throwback to much more exciting skyjacking films.

Cabin fever...

Cabin fever…

None of the plot twists or logic in Non-Stop hold up to any level of scrutiny. Things barely hang together in the heat of the moment, and start to fall apart if you think about them too much (or at all). Following an Air Marshall who finds his flight under siege from a mysterious assailant, Non-Stop grants its villain something approaching omnipotence. Our villain seems astutely aware of how everybody will act in any given situation, and any variance would render the evil plan quite useless.

Of course, this is part of the fun – there’s a sense of a good old-fashioned cat-and-mouse game between our grizzled and burnt-out Air Marshall and his unseen opponent. This opponent has vowed to kill one passenger ever twenty minutes until $150m dollars is wired to an off-shore account. Notwithstanding the logistical difficulties of killing passengers on an aeroplane, our anonymous foe has a kicker. The account, it turns out, is in the name of our hero. Inevitably, fingers begin to be pointed at the man who should be protecting this flight.

Reach for the sky...

Reach for the sky…

This is all absurd, as the various developments rely on characters being in the right place at the right time and acting in exactly the right manner. A different line of dialogue here, a delay there, everything falls apart. This is part of the goofy old-school charm of Non-Stop, harking back to the days when villains seemed to start action movies with impossible advantages just to make the playing field seem level. The key is in the execution, and – for most of its runtime – Non-Stop moves fast enough that you want to get caught up with it.

There’s a quirky inventiveness to Non-Stop, as the film takes a variety of tried-and-tested thriller tropes (claustrophobic setting? check – washed up protagonist? check – ticking clock? check) and finds a distinctive way of implementing most of them. The beauty of the set-up is just how difficult is to keep track of all these passengers in this tight space, and much of the movie hinges on the fact that our protagonist can only be in one part of the plane at a given moment. Refusing to leaving his side or perspective for more than a few seconds at a time, the movie can ratchet up the tension.

A first class act...

A first class act…

There’s something almost playful about the way director Jaume Collet-Serra frames the action. Presenting text messages as on-screen overlays has become a stock part of modern film and television, and is an essential part of Non-Stop given the anonymity of the would-be hijacker. However, Collet-Serra shakes things up a bit. Those messages are fractured when read on the screen of a broken phone; they shake during turbulance; they swim around our hero’s head as he gets more and more out of his depth.

There are problems, though. As much as Non-Stop might want to be a mid-nineties hijacking thriller, complete with ransom demands and foreign bank accounts, drug smuggling and bomb threats, the movie can’t help but escape the shadow of 9/11. Forced to acknowledge the changes resulting from that horrific event, the movie tries to incorporate them into the villain’s motivation. Changing the villain from a ransomer to a terrorist loads the film down too much, and feels like a transparent stab at relevance.

The plane will not be Taken so easily...

The plane will not be Taken so easily…

Making this an ideological threat rather than a purely monetary concern feels a little too ham-fisted, and sucks a lot of the goofy high-concept fun out of the movie. “You should have handed out pamphlets,” our hero quips after hearing the obligatory villain monologue. It’s to the credit of Non-Stop that it never devotes itself entirely to this rather tired social commentary and heavy-handed political subtext. (“Our security is a lie,” the villain rants.) Even with the inevitable revelation that the killer wants more than just money, the movie suggests that the financial motivations behind this threat were genuine on some level.

Liam Neeson does good work here. Neeson’s career renaissance as a leading man for these sorts of thrillers is oddly endearing. The scripts for movies like Taken or Unknown or Non-Stop never really give the veteran thespian that much to do, but Neeson has an impressive gravitas that helps to carry the movie further than it might otherwise go. Yes, his tragic and broken (and drunken) Air Marshall is a stock thriller protagonist, but Neeson gives the character just a glimmer of humanity.

The sky is falling...

The sky is falling…

The rest of the cast do good work, even if none ever develop beyond two-dimensional cyphers. Julianne Moore is given the largest supporting role, and an awkwardly shoe-horned in back story, but she plays well off Neeson as the character’s only true confidante. Corey Stoller makes the most of a bit part as a shady passenger, while Scoot McNairy adds a bit of mystery as one of Neeson’s earliest suspects. None of these characters are given much to do, with character development portioned out in awkward chunks of dialogue and exposition, but they give Non-Stop a bit of a quirky charm.
Non-Stop is a serviceable mid-tier action movie. It’s not bold enough to be brilliant, and it never embraces its pulpy nineties thriller roots enough to be as fun as it should be. Instead, the movie winds up feeling a little over-long, with a climax that awkwardly strains toward relevance.

2 Responses

  1. Cool review yo, when I first saw the trailers for this months ago I didn’t even care because it just look like Neeson doing Taken on a plane. Though the recent decent reviews have lead me to belive that the film won’t be as bad as I thought it’d be. I’ll probably give it a watch this week.

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