I sometimes wonder what makes a great actor, and what really separates the performances that get recognised in major industry awards and the ones that prop up straightforward genre fare that won’t get anywhere near such recognition. Because this film — a taut action thriller set on a plane for which the threat of global terrorism is just a convenient prop for a bit of gung-ho men-with-guns nonsense — certainly has some good actors in it, ones who’ve had that taste of recognition (Lupita Nyong’o, who has a small role here, just the other night). But none of them are going to be getting any nods next year, except from their accountants, because the difference between those two planes of acting has little to do with the actor, but with the quality of the writing, and this right here is boilerplate generic action-by-numbers. It just so happens that it’s done with enough aplomb that it mostly stays on the right side of enjoyable hokum.
Liam Neeson has certainly redirected his career towards the kind of terrain more fitted to the talents of Jason Statham, essaying growly-voiced vengeance with rote regularity. Non-Stop isn’t quite the same as his Taken franchise though, and here he’s not out for revenge but to try and figure out just what’s going on. It’s not even clear to everyone that he’s the good guy — he’s a man seen swigging whisky on the job and smoking in the airplane’s bathroom, with a ferocious stubble and the hangdog expression of someone not really up to the job. On the other hand, as a friend pointed out to me, the film’s opening minutes do a terrific job of implicating just about everyone we see, including plenty of obvious stereotypes, which is as any whodunit should be. And if there is, in the end, an explanation for what’s going on, it’s pretty perfunctory and I’m not sure I could recount it for you even if I wanted to. That’s not the point. The point is the chase.
The dialogue may not find any new levels of truth, and some of the emotion-laden symbolism (Neeson’s relationship with his daughter, Julianne Moore’s need to be by the window) is unpicked in speeches and then groaningly resolved by the plot’s machinations, which however self-awarely contrived (“in an unbelievable twist…” announces a news anchor near the end) are still contrived. And then there’s the usual overreliance of the malefactor(s) on procedures being followed and on things being done in a certain way (though not perhaps to quite the extent of, say, Skyfall). But the writers and director at least do a good job with stringing out the suspense until there seems no escape before finding a tiny crack and moving things forward to the next brick wall. It ensures that even in the claustrophobically limited space there’s still plenty to hold the viewer’s attention. And that too is where the good actors come in handy.
It’s a film in which the terrorist (but who?) wants $150 million. Neeson’s character at length feels it’s not about the money. But for the filmmakers and the studio it has to be, and maybe that amount is their own target to get from the audience? It won’t win any awards, and it may not deserve them, but it’ll make money and, for the daffy enjoyment it provides, it probably deserves at least that.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra; Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle; Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano [as “Flavio Labiano”]; Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 3 March 2014.