There was a time when Liam Neeson seemed to need such a foreign-sounding name. He played Oskar Schindler, the sensualist-turned-saint who saved a thousand Jews from Hitler’s hands. He played Michael Collins, the fiery revolutionary, and the strangely pious Rob Roy. Anymore, though, I think Liam might as well be a Jack or a John, given how near the center of the road his tastes tend to run. He’s become a franchise man, showing up in Batman movies, Star Wars movies, and a third Taken film on the horizon. He’s run the A to Z of religious figures, as well, curiously appearing as both Aslan and Zeus in films released the same calendar year.
When I remarked to a colleague that I was going to see Non-Stop, I jokingly called it “Die Hard on a plane”; my teenage years were that era when every action film was simply a relocation of the Die Hard formula. “Die Hard in a tunnel” (Daylight). “Die Hard on Alcatraz” (The Rock). “Die Hard in space” (Armageddon). “Die Hard on a plane” (Con Air). “Die Hard on a plane” (Air Force One). “Die Hard on a plane” (Passenger 57). “Die Hard on a plane” (Executive Decision). In retrospect, the plane thing has been done quite a lot, although the Die Hard aspect has proven far more difficult. I find it hard to imagine any contemporary actor coyly extracting a pack of cigarettes from a dead terrorist’s pocket and saying, “Uh, uh, uh… these are very bad for you” before lighting one himself. John McClane was an effective reinvention of the Old Western sheriff, the morally unpredictable rogue-for-justice who was simultaneously salvaging a failing marriage and writing “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in fresh blood on the bodies of his lawless victims. Classical literature is well stocked with such figures; both Odysseus and Aeneas ride a fine line of likability, balancing their cardinal virtues (courage, prudence) with run-of-the-mill carousing and infidelity. While the Die Hard franchise has been reanimated twice in recent years, Bruce has lost his juice and the scriptwriters have more often made jokes at his expense than let his wily smile and fast mouth do any real entertaining.
Liam Neeson has taken the action star role in a much different direction, though. The action star is no longer a trickster, but sullen and vengeful. Neeson’s forehead slopes down sharply and piles up on his brow; even when his face is in a state of rest, he yet appears to stew. He is also six foot four, and so his body broods over everyone with whom he shares the screen; that brooding effect is heightened in Non-Stop, wherein Neeson is cramped in the cabin of an airplane.
Non-Stop is not so much Die Hard on a Plane as it is a potboiler. We first see federal air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson), face hardened with regret, drinking whiskey in a car parked at an airport. He takes a slug, his face bitters. He lovingly touches a photograph of a young girl. All the details we might assume from such an introduction unfold without surprise for the next hour or so. Bill boards a flight bound for London, and director Jaume Collet-Saura allows the plane to fill slowly, the camera lingering on a dozen or so faces of the hundred and fifty passengers so we can begin making our predictions about who the bad guy is. There’s a guy who looks Arab. A cop in plain clothes. A rude man in a suit. A loudmouth black kid. A mousy white guy. The pilot. The stewardess the pilot might be sleeping with. The unveiling of the suspects feels a good bit like an obvious pick-up line.
For those who are yet interested in seeing the film and enjoy what I can only speciously call “surprises,” leave off here, see the film and come back. For the rest of you, I’ll remove the fasten seatbelt sign and we’ll move freely about the plot.
As soon as the flight takes off, Bill gets a series of threatening texts on a secure federal line to his cell phone. If a hundred and fifty million dollars are not wired to a certain bank account in twenty minutes, a passenger will die. Another twenty minutes without the money and another passenger will die. Bill quickly allies himself with stewardess Nancy Hoffman, played by Michelle Dockery, one of the many widows of Downton Abbey, and Jen Summers, played by an unusually loose Julianne Moore. No fewer than a dozen times, Collet-Saura lingers a split second too long on Nancy, or tosses off some other glaringly obvious visual suggestion that she is the guilty suspect who is sending the threats. Alas, what this movie might have been. Michelle Dockey is wispy, pretty, endearingly and mildly cross-eyed and half Liam Neeson’s age, but in her four years on Downton Abbey, she has honed an ability to look bored, judgmental and superior, and I waited the whole movie to see that aristocratic ennui suddenly transform on her face into genuine malevolence. I could have believed it and she might have given Aslan a run for his money. No dice. She looks nervous and worried and never moves outside a rather predictable set of responses to being pushed around. So, too, I would have liked to see Julianne Moore get wicked; she plays her part here with the same kind of slack and slapdash she brought to her guest role on 30 Rock, although she’s not the killer either. Once we realize this, we are left with the rather disappointing, unappetizing prospect of waiting for our hero, the award-winning multi-zillionaire Big Hollywood actor, kill some no-name budget-friendly freebie. In this case, the Christian name of the actor in question is actually Scoot. I was reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when the goat is offered to the Tyrannosaurus. Liam Neeson doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to bite a Brontosaurus’ neck.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At the end of the first twenty minute window, Marks finds himself in the lavatory with another federal agent whom he ends up slaughtering in self-defense. It appears the guilty suspect has been revealed, but then the texts keep coming. Bill reveals that he is a federal air marshal to the entire plane and waves a gun around as he tries a number of gags to get the guilty passenger to reveal himself, none of which work. The passengers become increasingly anxious, and after Bill blunders a whole mess of methods to extract a confession from this or that passenger, a mob of angry men decide another 9/11 is on the line and try to kill Bill. Neeson bests them all, although narrowly escapes being shot when the mousy guy, who has previously been tied up as a suspect, picks up Bill’s dropped gun and hands it back in a sign of goodwill and confidence that Bill is innocent. There is a subplot which involves one of the passengers taking video of Bill freaking out, uploading the footage to Youtube and the video immediately becoming breaking news on CNN; the passengers watch the news, wherein the privacy of Bill’s whole sad life is quickly divested, and they all judge him to be a neurotic drunk who has finally snapped. However, when his gun is returned, there is a moment of calm and Neeson delivers a touching confession of his past sins, reconfirms his intentions to save the day, and suddenly wins back the passenger’s sympathies. In that moment, it is harder to say whether the plane or the movie is in greater danger of crashing and burning.
The ending of this mystery, like most mysteries of its kind, feels entirely arbitrary. Up until the guilty party’s motive is revealed, most of the suspects seem legitimate, and when the killers blab their idealistic reasons for murder, we feel a good half-dozen other endings might have been arrived at just as easily, just as logically. I suppose such mysteries invariably steer the viewer toward some kind of alarming uncertainty and creeping paranoia, as though anyone in our lives might abruptly be revealed as a villain. I am content that such a purpose might be proper, although mysteries like Non-Stop rarely present that unpleasant revelation or realization of the evil around us in any kind of humane light. The villains have hidden their villainy, and then rashly and gloriously spew it forth. The murder mystery takes its cues from the Last Supper, and as often as we puzzle over the secret identity of the killer, we relive the apostles’ anxiety that night; even St. John the Beloved wondered if he would finally betray God. At the same time, when Judas’ evil is finally unveiled, he is ashamed and hides in death. So, too, when the secret evils of our friends and neighbors come to light, they rarely thump their chests and speak manifestos. Granted, some men come out of the closet in dramatic fashion, but I prefer a murder mystery aim for the psychological complexity of Christ’s betrayer, not to mention the bizarre drama of the betrayal when viewed as a plot. The murder mystery ought to be something other than a predictably unpredictable machine. Memento was a murder mystery which admirably shot across the bow of intellection, and David Fincher’s The Game was a direct hit. Both of those films deeply internalized the mystery as opposed to objectifying it and leaving it in a time-lock safe which can’t help but to open after a hundred cinematic minutes.
Non-Stop is the kind of film you stab on the check receipt spike as you walk out of the theater, happy the show did not live up to its’ name.