Non-Stop is a relentlessly relentless thriller set on a commercial airline high above the Atlantic which, as the movie takes off, may or not be under threat of hijack.
a deadly earnest joke-free zone
This is a near perfect object of 21st century film-technique, the kind of gee-wow-gotcha movie-skill unallied to such apparently insignificant values as story, believability or anything resembling recognisable human behaviour. That’s not much of a compliment because in the circumstances, it’s a bit like admiring a mugger for their dress sense.
From its first seconds – a funeral grey shot of a taxi cab window streaked with poetically positioned 'tears’ of rain, foreshadowing the angst to come – Non-Stop seems out to grip and, I have to admit, it had me for quite a while in much the same way that Die Hard (1988) and Speed (1994) did, the movie-fun machines from which this one has clearly descended.
It might be overstating, but those pictures had a sense of irony or maybe merely the ridiculous. That is, they never pretended to be about real things. They were 'about’ blowing stuff sky-high (and having the audience sweat in anticipation of each detonation only to make every explosion, when it finally erupted, a thing of beauty). Instead of character, they had warmth and a laudable commitment to the belief that faced with terror and an almost empty gun chamber, a one-liner will do.
Such now old-fashioned movie manoeuvres aren’t in the Non-Stop manifest. It’s a deadly earnest joke-free zone in which the high point of humour comes when a gentle Muslim doctor – who maybe a suspect in the film’s hostage drama – resets the broken nose of a tough New York cop the hard way. The gag being it hurts the perhaps bigoted macho guy and the nice doctor has the last laugh.
This movie reteams the director and star of Unknown, and like that overloaded Bourne-lite spy flick, the new pic wears its ambitions as a lucid commentator on recent world events on its sleeve like a black arm-band. Of course, this tradition of the genre movie as smuggler of subversion, satire, parody and social criticism is as old as cinema. Here the spectre of 9/11 haunts Non-Stop; indeed that tragedy and the circumstances of United flight 93 are reduced to a crass plot device, keeping the movie’s ludicrousness aloft, but more on that later.
If Jaume Collet-Serra has no interest or talent for injecting light relief into the tension, he’s absolutely wonderful at conjuring the fear and inner turmoil of his hero, a grumpy air marshal called Bill Marks (Liam Neeson). This guy needs a whack of hard liquor just to get into the terminal, and once inside, he stares at the bored impatient travellers as if they were gathered there to lynch him. This turns out to be the best bit in the movie; it’s a symphony of paranoia delivered with a Hitchcockian-style subjective camera that immediately has us thinking twice about Marks. Is he after someone, or is someone after him?
Since Marks is impersonated by Neeson – a man who reeks of a saintly purity of a kind that Tom Cruise can only dream about – that is a non-question. But it does alert you to the film’s plot scheme: it’s a movie of reversals and misinformation, where everyone on board is a suspect (and a clue to its politics).
The set-up is coolly efficient. There’s a killer on a plane. They make demands via text to Marks. They want 150 million bucks or else they will kill a passenger every 20 minutes. At first, Marks thinks it’s a hoax until he’s almost pulped to death in the plane’s toilet, which gives him pause. He recruits a nervous flyer, Jen (Julianne Moore), and an equally nervous attendant, Nancy (Michelle Dockery), to find the bad guy. Still, Marks is encumbered by his own brutalist tendencies and the fact that he comes off as a panic stricken looney. Before you can say 'viral’, the incident goes global and Marks becomes universally loathed as a terrorist suspect. Meanwhile, the passengers raise a heroic stand against him – that’s the disquieting and tasteless United 93 reference that turns the passengers into seething mob out for blood.
The first principle of any thriller is jeopardy: the theory being that if one piles on the stakes and the pressure, the suspense ascends at supersonic speed. (Like I said, it’s just a theory.) The scriptwriters, John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, take this notion on with an almost religious fervor; Non-Stop, as the title promises, just keeps piling on the crises, which might have made soulless fun if it weren’t for the fact that Collet-Serra and co. insist on giving all of the featured cast a backstory and a set-piece speech to explain it as if they were testifying at some New Age therapy weekender.
The movie’s worst bit has Neeson in full redemptive hero mode begging support from the passengers by disclosing the fact he is a grieving father, an alcoholic and bad at his job; like the Feds in Washington, he understands that after 9/11 he’s on notice and he’s out to try harder. After some thought, I concluded that as a call to arms and a leap of faith, this was no match for 'yippee-ki-yah muthafucker’ and the firm knit of Bruce Willis’ reliable eyebrows.
Still, all the ferocious action can’t quite make up for the fact that there is a high percentage of screen time dedicated to watching Neeson read text messages and look worried. Collet-Serra and co. have this correspondence pop on screen in stylised phone type graphics like thought bubbles. Perhaps this visual strategy was about getting us into Marks’ mindset as a victim of this lethal troll, but unfortunately I couldn’t think about anything but those hi-tech travel ads that promise paradise type destinations.
Sadly, the only place Non-Stop is headed is to a climax that owes a lot to Airport (1970) and that’s not a cinematic moment I wanted to revisit. Indeed, Non-Stop is indebted to a lot of movies, from The Lady Vanishes (1938) to crazy Vietnam vet pics to Juggernaut (1974). It’s depressing to conclude that the best thing about this plane hijack thriller is the trainspotting.