Non-Stop Thrills for an Afternoon Out

NonStop image from Collider

The recent news about the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine after the recent revolution there is really depressing. Maybe a trip to the local movie theater might be in order, to help forget about the world and just enjoy some fantasy escapism for a while.

Ooh, look! There’s a Liam Neeson movie in theaters right now! That’ll do the trick!

Non-Stop is an action-mystery-thriller from StudioCanal, the French film studio that apparently really, really wishes it was an American film studio, considering the movies it makes (Taken, The Last Exorcism, Contraband, Frost/Nixon, Atonement). The movie takes place on board a flight from New York to London, with Neeson as the U.S. Air Marshall assigned to the flight. At first, everything seems normal, but then a text arrives on his phone warning him that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to an offshore account. You know the rest… it’s a race against time to find out who the killer is as passengers start to die one-by-one.

One of the most interesting choices the filmmakers took was to make Neeson’s character, our ostensible hero, not a very likable guy. He’s an alcoholic who breaks the rules, he’s often rude and gruff, and he clearly has a dark past. This is a bold and delicate choice. If the hero is too unlikable, the audience can’t relate to him and won’t root for him. Fortunately, the filmmakers gave him a “soft side”; some very human touches that make him flawed-but-understandable, and not a monster.

Another plus is that this movie doesn’t try to depend on Neeson to carry the whole film. Rising stars Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Lupita Nyong’o (who just won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave) play the two stewardesses who must help Neeson investigate the case, while veterans Julianne Moore (Magnolia, Crazy Stupid Love), Scoot McNairy (Argo, Monsters), Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Red Tails) and Omar Metwally (Munich, Rendition) help to give the cast of passengers on board the human touch needed. Indeed, these characters really feel like the kind of people you’ve met on any long flight. You can completely understand what everyone is thinking from one moment to the next, as the situation gets more and more complicated.

The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, makes some really interesting but effective choices throughout the film. In the early scenes, everything is filmed through a dark filter to make it all appear hazy, showing how our Air Marshall’s drinking problem negatively affects his ability to do his job. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that watching the back-and-forth texts between detective and murderer on everyone’s phones would be a struggle for the audience, so instead the texts start showing up as graphics on the screen next to Neeson. It sounds corny, but it works, and helps to add to the tension as texts come flying in while the Marshall tries to explain the situation to his superiors at the TSA.

Well, I liked it anyway. Judge for yourself.

Well, I liked it anyway. Judge for yourself.

The film’s strength is in its tension, as each new development changes the whole situation. Its weakness, though, is in the mystery itself. Maybe I’ve just watch too many Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but it seemed to me that I was figuring things out faster than the Marshall was, and that he was ignoring some obvious clues at certain points. It seemed like a pretty predictable mystery with some twists that were rather disappointing. Still, the film needs credit for its effective use of action – the action beats don’t overwhelm or crowd out the other elements of the movie, as they do in some pictures. They are well-timed and carefully used to maximize the tension.

The film also has some other elements that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. There is a child-in-danger subplot that runs through the film. I thought it was well-done, and it didn’t distract from the main plot very much. However, if you just don’t like child-in-danger subplots, these parts might be hard for you to sit through.

Overall, I’d say the film works for what it is: a nice, suspenseful thriller that will keep you entertained for an afternoon. It’s not perfect, but it knows what it needs to do right and nails it.

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