Liam Neeson continues to pistol-whip his way across the globe in Non-Stop, this time on a flight from New York to London. The lantern-jawed Irish actor has unexpectedly become a modern-day Charles Bronson, a strong, silent type seeking vengeance in creatively violent variations. Though Neeson's no stranger to pulp—he was Darkman, after all—it was producer Luc Besson who cemented the actor's late-career persona in Taken with his “particular set of skills.”
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has taken the weaponized Neeson and deployed him in two sleek wrong-man thrillers that reintroduce vulnerability into his character (Collet-Serra and Neeson will collaborate a third time for Run All Night, set to be released in February 2015). In Unknown (11) Neeson was an amnesiac scientist whose identity is stolen as part of a conspiracy plot, and he spends most of the film stumbling around Berlin piecing the remnants of his life together. In Non-Stop he plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic air-marshal framed as a flight hijacker by an unidentified passenger. As in Unknown, Neeson’s character is on the defensive, innumerable steps behind his nemesis.
With Non-Stop, Collet-Serra confirms his status of one of Hollywood’s most inventive genre artists (and one of the last to shoot on film). Born in Barcelona, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18, and got his start making music videos and commercials. The great American huckster Joel Silver hired him to direct the 2005 remake of House of Wax, a shockingly good slasher movie that runs on class resentment, embodied in the plasticine grin of Paris Hilton.
After a detour in England for the soccer sequel Goal II: Living the Dream (07), he returned stateside for Orphan (09), a variation on the evil-child subgenre that doubles as a critique of a bourgeois marriage—Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga are sliced up by Collet-Serra’s lacerating compositions of their modernist wood-and-glass home. (The satanic Estonian runt masquerading as a sweet little girl is just a bonus.) Add in Unknown and Non-Stop, and it’s becoming clear that Collet-Serra is interested in the fungibility of identity, and how easily our sense of self can be manipulated. In Non-Stop, after Marks is framed as the hijacker, he acts schizophrenically, rapidly alternating between torture tactics and the-customer-is-always-right sweet talk, promising free international flights if everyone will shut up.
Neeson is suitably bedraggled, sporting an oily five o’clock shadow while adding some gravel to his tenor delivery. Introduced stirring his morning whiskey with a toothbrush, he’s the jangled-nerve inverse to Taken’s impassive death machine. What he still retains is his keen observational skills, and Collet-Serra turns Non-Stop into a symphony of stares. This begins in the opening shot, a rack focus from condensation in a windshield to Marks hungrily eyeing his hair of the dog. Once at work in JFK Airport (shot on location), Marks scans the passengers for red flags. Collet-Serra indicates his POV with tilt-shift lenses that localize focus on individual actors, the rest of the frame lost in a gauzy haze. This indicates both his ability to narrow his locus of attention as well as the fact that he’s got a buzz on.
Once on the plane, the visual field becomes overwhelmed with faces. As the killer could be any of the passengers or crew, Marks has to widen his field of vision. His eyes pass over a cast of talented supporting actors. Collet-Serra has a gift for attracting thespians slumming in genre pictures (see Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown), and this time he nets Julianne Moore as Neeson’s acid-tongued seatmate and investigative ally, plus Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as a stubborn New York City cop and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as a cool-headed stewardess. Lupita Nyong’o is Dockery’s co-stewardess, though in nothing more than a bit part.
Collet-Serra ditches the tilt-shift lenses to get deeper focus as Neeson is constantly scanning the aircraft at large, tapping civilians to help him keep eyes on everyone, establishing a mini–surveillance state on board. The film draws on all manner of post-9/11 anxieties, but especially the state’s sacrifice of privacy for security. Marks gives himself NSA-level capabilities, forcing passengers to hand over their phones so he can read their texts and ogle their photos for the greater good. It’s this kind of state overreach that motivates the killer’s plot, though his reasons are rushed through in the hectic finale. (Although the plot begs comparison to Murder on the Orient Express, it’s not Agatha Christie–tight.)
Despite being an action-movie star, Neeson is not a physically agile performer, intimidating more with his voice and presence. This limits the options for fight-scene choreography, as the 61-year-old can’t be expected to take the physical punishment of long-take brawls. Instead he’s given short, precise movements that are joined together in rapidly edited succession. It’s a style that was pushed to incoherence in the Taken series but is tailor-made for the tight spaces of Non-Stop, such as the setpiece fight inside the airplane’s bathroom. Air marshals are trained to utilize close-quarters fighting styles that attack pressure points (mainly to subdue drunks), and this is emphasized in a grappling bout between Marks and one of the killer’s hired goons. Shot mainly in close-up, it’s a thrilling brawl made up of minute motions, and is decided by a thumb.
Though Marks’s moves keep him alive, it’s his constant, invasive surveillance of the passengers that solves the mystery. Neeson’s eyes, which Collet-Serra focuses on in the first shot, are what unravel the nefarious plot—except now he’s staring into a cell-phone video of the killer commandeered from a snap-happy teen, instead of a cup of whiskey. It seems the ends justify the police-state means, at least if Liam Neeson is doing the justifying.</p>