Part locked-room mystery, part political allegory, Non-Stop is one of the most purely enjoyable entries in the ongoing cycle of Liam Neeson action-thrillers, tempering the star’s gruff strongman antics with surveillance-state commentary that’s more clever than subversive. Set almost entirely aboard a red-eye JFK-to-Heathrow flight, the movie stars Neeson as Bill Marks, an Irish-born U.S. air marshal who is framed for hijacking the plane by an unknown criminal mastermind presumed to be lurking among the passengers. Rather than try to cheat his way out of this constrained premise, director Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously directed Neeson in the chase mystery Unknown) makes the most of it, using the absence of an exterior point of view to build suspense.
Working with cinematographer Flavio Labiano (The Day Of The Beast, Timecrimes), Collet-Serra continually crisscrosses the interior of the plane—seemingly modeled on a Virgin Atlantic flight and lit hazy purple—with long handheld takes and down-the-aisle dolly shots. Marks’ inability to see what all of the other characters are doing contributes to the tension; the layout and seating arrangements of the plane are the plot. In one of the few instances in which the viewer’s perspective is separated from Marks’, a complex CGI shot creates the illusion of the camera seamlessly dollying out of a window in first class and then dollying into one at the back of coach; this effectively maps the plane, and underscores the way in which its compartments and dividers create visual obstructions.
On-screen word balloons have become film and TV’s go-to method for depicting text messages, and since Marks can only communicate with the real hijacker through texting, Non-Stop is chock full of them. Collet-Serra has the time of his life with this visual device, distorting the text when Marks tries to read it during a period of turbulence or taking it out of focus when he looks away from his phone. Like most of the film’s characterizations and plot points, the word balloons represent a familiar trope; what distinguishes them—and the movie—is that they’re being applied creatively.
The script—by newcomers Chris Roach, John W. Richardson, and Ryan Engle—posits Marks’ cat-and-mouse game with the texter as a kind of mini War On Terror, with Marks standing in for his federal employers, the texter as the undefined exterior threat (whose actual motives turn out to be extremely corny), and the passengers as the public caught in between. Crucial to the movie is the contrast between the way in which Marks conforms to an image of scowling leadership, and his lack of efficacy. He makes critical mistakes and lies about them to the passengers and crew. He conducts searches that lead nowhere. His alcoholism is an open secret in the service. Simply put, he’s a fuck-up who inspires confidence only because he looks and sounds exactly like Liam Neeson.
Suspicion and secrecy are a key part of both thrillers and counter-terrorism narratives. Non-Stop’s tweak is to present them as impediments to the solution of the central mystery. Counterintuitive as they may seem, transparency, a willingness to be criticized, and a basic level of trust in everyone—despite knowing that one of them has to be the bad guy—end up winning the day. As much as Marks may look like the spitting image of a solo hero, it’s only when he begins to work as a specialized member of a larger group that he becomes effective.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Non-Stop’s Spoiler Space.