' Cinema Romantico: Non-Stop

Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-Stop

Chronicling a hijacked jet bound for London by way of New York, "Non-Stop" starts out essentially absurd and generally entertaining. A committed Liam Neeson stoically stands at the film's center and almost single-handedly holds the fuselage together, but the film's callbacks to a horrific September morning in 2001 and its eventual attempts to tack meaning onto the tail-end of its outlandishness leave it feeling vaguely insulting.


Neeson is Bill Marks, a down-on-his-luck federal marshal who we meet in the opening scene that deploys onscreen clues like index cards. He pours liquor into a coffee cup. The radio is tuned to public radio chatter about airport security. (It must have been set to a frequency from "Killing Them Softly.") A glimmer of a daughter's photograph. But Neeson is experienced in these taciturn roles of a failed man down to his last less-than-best chance. A mere turning of his head to lock eyes with a passenger for whom he does not care provides a rush of insight, not to mention a solid belly laugh.

In the early moments, as passengers board and find their seats, director Jaume Collet-Serra's camera functions almost as a plane voyeur, the person peering out from behind his/her seat, scoping out everyone and recording mental notes. And because the audience expects something bad to happen from the get-go, we do the same, like "Scream 2" where ANYONE and EVERYONE could be the killer and, thus, we play the mental guessing game. Which one, we wonder, will be Marks' mark?

This is the twenty-tens, though, and the bad guy makes himself know via cellphone. Initially we literally see Marks texting replies back and forth, but before long those texts appear in onscreen bubbles. The bad guy claims to be aboard. He claims he will kill a passenger every twenty minutes if he does not receive $150 million. Marks points out it's a federal offense to hack into the air marshal network. The bad guy points out it's a federal offense for Marks to smoke an airline bathroom. Uh oh. This time it's personal.

For all the obvious space limitations, "Non-Stop" never feels as if it runs out of of places to go and never grows inordinately claustrophobic. Which could theoretically be argued as a weakness, I suppose, but then the intent is not to be "Das Boot." It's more like Murder on a 747, an Agatha Christie thriller in the air, as Marks wades through all the leads established in the opening scenes.


Another film about this same story might have been wise to tell it from the point-of-view of a passenger. I suspect that someone living and breathing in the film, unaware this is Neeson playing one of those parts, might have alternately viewed the situation with disbelieving horror and comedy. To us, he's Neeson, and because he is, we know he's never in the wrong. To a passenger, as he disobeys direct orders, calls for unauthorized searches of passengers in the middle of the night, waves his gun around, and, in one truly hilarious moment, advises everyone will receive a year's worth of free international flight despite having no authority to do so, he's a probable nutcase.

The film kind of utilizes the passengers' fears, but also exploits them, wading a little too deeply into United 93 territory as they (with "help" from the on-the-ground media) decide they are being hijacked and fight back. The only one who stands with Marks through thick and thin is the woman sitting beside him at the flight's outset, Jen, played by the illustrious Julianne Moore who nobly resists her sidekickedness. "Ma'am?" she says to Marks in one delightfully disarming moment. "Did you just call me ma'am?"

The conclusion is really where "Non-Stop" runs aground. There are gaps in logic, sure, and plot holes, no doubt, and red herrings aplenty, the real world left comfortably back on the airstrip, but that all goes without saying and is not in any way a problem for a film cheeky enough to have a character say of a possible onboard bomb, "Isn't there a wire we can cut?" That last line suggests "Non-Stop" is on the joke. Except the ultimate motivation of the obligatory villain (villains?) seems like an utterly pitiful stab to say......something.

If you want to be a thriller of the pulse-pounding, time-ticking variety, by all means, be one. Co-opting a great American tragedy to make a post 9/11 "Passenger 57", however, rubs this reviewer the wrong way.

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