The shockingly popular Liam Neeson vehicle Taken succeeded because it was light on intellectualizing and played to its actors’ strengths. Well paced, punctuated by moments of stylized and well-choreographed violence, and featuring a hero with an extremely basic motive—father must rescue daughter—the movie zipped along at a perfect pace.
It’s as if the creators of Non-Stop—which has been referred to as "Taken on a plane" by, well, me (and probably some others)—looked at the Taken formula, and decided it needed some talky intellectualization and fewer action sequences in order to really get audiences into the story.
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This gambit was unsuccessful. Non-Stop manages to pull the rare feat of feeling both paper-thin and overstuffed. It’s filled with characters rattling off endless lines of dialogue that explain exactly who they are and what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle tell—and tell and tell and tell—when they should show.
Neeson stars as Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal with money problems whose family disintegrated after his daughter died of cancer. After his flight takes off, Bill’s cellphone starts dinging: He’s getting text messages from someone who knows he’s an air marshal, knows of his personal issues, and knows how to push his buttons.
Oh, and this mysterious text-buddy wants $150 million wired to an offshore account or he’s going to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes.
In a modestly clever twist, Bill is manipulated into killing the first of the victims in one of the film’s few rousing moments, a fistfight to the death in a cramped airplane bathroom. After it is revealed that the bank account to which the money will be transferred is in Bill’s name, on-the-ground agents at the TSA quickly finger our heroic air marshal as a terrorist. Ordered to stand down, he has only the length of the flight to discover the true identity of his tormentor—and what the villain truly wants.
There was a chance to do something clever here. What, for example, if an unreliably narrating air marshal really did hijack a flight? But Richardson and company apparently deemed cleverness to be overrated.
Instead, the final 20 minutes of the movie involve a ludicrous reveal* punctuated by much speechifying and absurdly intricate reasoning aimed at proving a point about … something. As Bill says after he learns of their motivations, "You should’ve just handed out pamphlets. It would’ve been easier."
Neeson turns in a solid performance, as one would expect. He is firmly in the "paychecks, please" phase of his career—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but he’s enough of a pro to put some effort into the affair. A bit soft and paunchy, as befits the role, he nevertheless turns it on when the going gets physical.
Similarly, Julianne Moore is better than this film deserves as a passenger seated next to the air marshal who may or may not be on the level. She’s not given much to work with, but the spry redhead makes the most of it. Meanwhile, Israeli starlet Bar Paly is given scandalously little to work with as a gorgeous passenger who briefly flirts with Neeson. Find more for her to do, Hollywood!
*Spoiler (highlight to see): Turns out the bad guy is the family member of a 9/11 victim who joined the military only to become disillusioned with America so he’s going to blow up an airplane to prove to the public that we’re not safe. As Neeson said: a pamphlet would’ve been easier. (And cheaper.)