Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: Non-Stop

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

On my personal list of instinctive reactions, not seeing a new Liam Neeson thriller would fall somewhere between blessing someone after they sneeze and jerking my knee when the doctor hits it with that little rubber hammer. Yet I was desperate to pop my cherry on 2014 films, had a last free day before I was about to start my new job (a topic that deserves more than this throwaway mention), and found nothing new from 2014 having a greater sway on me than Non-Stop -- about which the only thing I knew was that Neeson fires a pistol while on a plane (because that's on the poster). If I'd actually seen a trailer, that probably would have been enough to make me think better of it.

So I'm kind of glad I didn't. As preposterous, turn-your-brain-off action movies go, Non-Stop is a pretty fun one.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, one of those characters whose name would be really on the nose if the movie had anything to do with marked bills. He's an alcoholic air marshal about to board a red-eye from New York to London. This day is no different than any other -- Bill has been downing some stomach-warming brown liquid in his car in the parking lot to steel himself for the trip, since he's also afraid of flying. He's sporting a couple days of stubble, taking seriously his mandate to look like just any other passenger.

Except today actually is different -- Bill is about to walk directly into a possible hijacking. When they've turned off all the lights in the main cabin and are somewhere over the Atlantic, Bill receives a message to his mobile device on a secure network, telling him that passengers will begin dying at 20-minute intervals if Bill can't get $150 million wired to a certain bank account number. Seeing suspicious characters both everywhere and nowhere, Bill must figure out if the threat is a hoax in time to prevent the first possible killing -- and if his alcohol-warped perception of the world is affecting his judgment. On his side, or possibly not, are the woman sitting next to him (Julianne Moore), two young flight attendants (Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong'o), an Arabic doctor (Omar Metwally), a mobile phone programmer (Nate Parker) and the second air marshal on board (Anson Mount).

Most movies working the real-time concept are pretty filmsy when it comes to realism, but this needn't be fatal to their effectiveness. In fact, one of my top 20 films of all time, Run Lola Run, plays fast and loose with the same 20-minute lengths of real time that Non-Stop uses. To buy into movies like these, you have to take them with a grain or a whole shaker of salt, instead of repeating the phrase "they could never do x in y number of minutes," undeniably true thought it may be.

In truth, Non-Stop is more absurd related to some of its other details than its use of the real-time concept. Since most of the action takes place aboard a plane, it is actually possible for the characters to accomplish most of the things they're accomplishing in those 20-minute segments of time. If you're going to get bogged down here, you're going to get bogged down on details like the fact that the possible hijacking reaches the levels of a full-blown news story, including interviews with expert talking heads, in the middle of the night in the U.S., while the flight is still going on. If they wanted to go that route, they might have been better off with a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, when the plane is in the air for 14 hours instead of the seven it takes to get to London from New York.

I've now spent two paragraphs on possible stumbling blocks to one's appreciation of Non-Stop, which is pretty misleading, since I didn't stumble over any of them. The story (by John W. Richardson and Chris Roach) is a mystery at its core, and it's an effective one. The screenwriters (which include the above two and Ryan Engle) introduce us to enough side characters, one of whom is probably (but not necessarily) responsible for the threats, that it keeps us guessing, busying ourselves with red herrings. As the film makes it seem more and more impossible for one of the passengers to be continuing to message Bill while the whole plane is under surveillance, the script digs itself a hole, then does an admirable job not burying itself. A second viewing might reveal some cheating, but Non-Stop is the kind of ride you really only need to go on once, even as you catch yourself enjoying it far more than you expected.

For his part, Neeson has of course played this role before. We've seen him threatening to find and kill bad people. However, he does seem to dig deep for a little extra from time to time here. He's not quite in Nicolas Cage, phoning-it-in territory yet, and this could certainly qualify as one of his better recent efforts. That's especially the case with three credible actresses on hand to lend this thing some additional class, in Moore, Downton Abbey's Dockery and recent Oscar winner Nyong'o.

It's not possible to watch Non-Stop without feeling like there's something a little hackish about it. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who worked with Neeson on Unknown, tries way too hard at the beginning to produce something arty, as he blurs the focus among other techniques to make Neeson seem like he's coming off the world's worst case of jet lag. These gestures only reveal a poseur at work. Fortunately, he ditches this approach for a more straightforward style as the plane gets airborne, and it's to the film's considerable benefit. He then sustains tension in a way that's really gripping, carrying that through to a big and satisfying finale.

The only thing that may not be so satisfying is the ultimate revelation of who's to blame and why, which is probably misguided at best and borderline insulting at worst. However, if you are already viewing Non-Stop in a positive light, there's a way to spin that message toward something a bit more thought-provoking, a way of seeing the world with its imperfections and embracing it anyway. Non-Stop itself is imperfect, but kind of worth embracing.

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