Non-Stop is the latest Liam Neeson action flick, and it's an entertaining ride. Applause at the end of the preview I attended, along with plenty of buzz at the exit, showed that the 'all-comers' audience found it to their liking.
Unfortunately the modern emphasis on trailers and synopsis-heavy reviews means you can pretty much know the story line before you pay your money for a film like this. Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Unknown", "Orphan") sets his film up in a way that invites you to figure things out, rather than knowing them in advance. A man who hates flying looks around alertly as he waits for his plane. A business class passenger orders a gin and tonic and is given a bottle of water. We don't have to wait long for the reasons to be clear, and for the trigger to what becomes a taut flight-and-fight experience, a matter of life and death for everyone on board.
Michelle Dockery brings her winsome Downton Abbey appeal as the chief flight attendant, though is rarely stretched in what is a plot-driven, rather than character-driven, outing. Julianne Moore is always a treat on screen, but again is kept on a fairly short leash in her part. And Liam Neeson is, well, Liam Neeson.
I've enjoyed Neeson as an actor for twenty years since the glory days of "Schindler's List", Rob Roy" and 'Michael Collins". As with Harrison Ford, he does not change his look. However he provides the strong, solid presence we're used to as an action movie anchor. His face is a comfortable combination of wear-and-tear and movie star good looks. When his character speaks of love and loss, we know the actor has been there. He offers and needs no overt displays of 'acting' to distract us from the story at hand.
At nearly 62 years of age, playing a character a decade younger, we never doubt Neeson's physical ability in the numerous action sequences. At 6'4" he towers over Moore, and over the seated passengers who are subject to his will during the dramatic flight. Whether he is fighting for his life in a toilet cubicle, or trying to break a gang-tackle from half a dozen passengers, you always believe you are watching Neeson, once an amateur boxer, rather than a stunt double. In one shocking moment Dockery's character is caught up in the violence and we believe that too.
There are plenty of criticisms you can direct at this film. It bows to convention with an unaccompanied minor who must be looked after and ultimately saved in one of the film's more preposterous sequences. There is a politically correct plot twist involving a token Muslim who attracts suspicion. The classic 'I'm a bad person but I'm here to save you if you'll let me' speech gets the passengers on side with unconvincing predictability. Neeson and Moore look set for a happy ending together. Suspend your disbelief and your critical tendencies to enjoy the journey.
There are some neat plot twists if you don't scrutinise them too carefully for plausibility. After multiple in-flight deaths, the story is as much a whodunnit mystery as an action film. The first death is visceral and unexpected. The second appears accidental. The third needs all your skills of detection.
There are echoes of other fateful plane trips, both real and imagined. One of the most sobering images is of the passengers watching breaking news being broadcast to the nation that their plane is in the hands of a terrorist, before they've been advised there is a problem. Passengers send messages to loved ones and even to TV stations, leading to the possibility that the plane will be shot down. The denouement itself references real-life in quite a thought-provoking way.
Are we safe on planes? Despite some horrific crashes the statistics say that we are, comparatively speaking. And fortunately, Captain Collet-Serra and his cabin crew never let us forget that what we are watching is fiction, pure and simple. Overall, it is a film that is compelling watching at the time, but forgettable afterwards. Arguably, it's the cliché that saves "Non-Stop" from being nightmare-inducing.