With the phenomenal box office performance of Non-Stop over its opening weekend, Liam Neeson’s transformation into an action hero looks to be complete—and that’s a great thing for fans of high-octane thrillers.
Who could have predicted a decade ago that the 61-year-old star of such highbrow fare as Schindler’s List, Ethan Frome, and Michael Collins would become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars in the kind of movies known more for bulging muscles and cheesy one-liners than Oscar nominations? Yet Neeson’s brooding Irish looks and rumbling, understated delivery bring a fresh intelligence to the genre.
The storylines of his recent films may be every bit as implausible as Die Hard or James Bond, yet we believe him utterly when, as a former CIA agent in Taken, he growls, “I have a very particular set of skills.” And, for the most part, we believe him in Non-Stop as Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal who must hunt for a terrorist while defending himself against accusations of terrorism.
Like many a classic whodunit, Non-Stop begins by showing us a lineup of somewhat stock characters—the giggly couple, the overly talkative tourist, the brusque New York cop, and, of course, the friendly, fiery-haired beauty (Julianne Moore). One of them is responsible for sending Marks text messages threatening to kill a passenger on a transatlantic flight every 20 minutes unless Marks deposits $150 million into a bank account set up in his name. Little by little, we learn details that fill out the broadly drawn characters and either confirm or alleviate our suspicions of them.
It’s quite a premise and for the first two-thirds of the movie the suspense builds thanks in large part to Neeson’s ability to embody simultaneously a capable law enforcement officer and a wounded soul barely managing to medicate the raw pain of his personal life with the bottle hidden in his briefcase. At no point does he come across as the cavalier or overly confident leading man audiences have seen a million times in similar thrillers. And the fact that Neeson’s not sure he can pull off a rescue (or even stop his hands from shaking) makes us root for him all the more. He is, in that sense, an older, smarter, more sympathetic action hero. Making him even more sympathetic—the general absence of gratuitous sex scenes and tossed-off profanities. Non-Stop, like Taken, contains some foul language and combat violence that earns it a PG-13 rating, but it feels like considerably less than similar films.
Unfortunately, Neeson’s presence and strong backup performances from both Moore and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as an anxious flight attendant aren’t quite enough to make up for the stumbling climax. The threads screenwriters John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach unspool during the setup are so clever, so twisty, it’s a shame they ultimately fail to tie them together. The ending they do come up with may be a genuine attempt to make a political point about security versus freedom, but it falls flat and feels completely out of tone with the rest of the movie.
But that’s no reflection on Neeson, who seems, for all his melancholic, hangdog delivery, as if he’s having a great time tackling what used to be a younger, buffer man’s game. And thanks to him, so are we.