Like Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, Liam Neeson is never more an A-lister than when starring in a movie released at a B time of the year. January, April, October–he does brisk business in the thrillers that have been his bread and butter since Taken (2009), when that oaken body and glowering line delivery fused into late-blooming action stardom at age 56. In that way he’s like Charles Bronson, who didn’t hit his stride with American audiences until Death Wish (1974), when he was 52 and had been at it for two decades. But Bronson had few prestige items like Schindler’s List (1993) and Michael Collins (1996), and stints on Broadway, on his earlier resume. Neeson is an interesting study in career change and maintenance over time.
A not terribly interesting credit, Non-Stop doesn’t do much besides add February to the list of off months, outside of summer and the holiday season, that the actor has conquered. Produced for a reasonable $50 million, the airborne actioner grossed $92 million here and added another $100 million or so to the take overseas, securing the “Neeson brand” for Taken 3 and Run All Night, an “aging hitman” yarn, which, like Non-Stop and 2011’s slightly more upscale Unknown, will be directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Collet-Sera can be a proficient helmsman, and Non-Stop rattles along for a bit before hitting severe air pockets in the windup, crashing and burning like a late-period Bronson flick enabled by his house director, J. Lee Thompson. It’s not a pairing to emulate over time.
In Non-Stop, Neeson is an alcoholic US Air Marshal on a typically “routine” New York to London flight that is, naturally, anything but. Someone is sending text messages (lest we miss the point, we see them, in large letters, onscreen) threatening to bump off a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is dispatched to an offshore account. It’s no joke, as the folks the marshal has sworn to protect start dropping, Ten Little Indians-style. Who’s the culprit? The clues point to Neeson, who must straighten up and fly right. But maybe it’s his seatmate, Julianne Moore? Flight attendant Michelle Dockery, hitching a ride from Downton Abbey? Or reserve flight attendant Lupita Nyong’o–though not with the handful of lines, spoken or text, the 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner has been given. Soon it doesn’t really matter, as the filmmakers give up connecting the dots in any meaningful or suspenseful way and give audiences from Cleveland to Estonia what they thinks it wants, namely a lot of limp digital effects in the service of some distasteful 9/11 exploitation. That $200 million gross had to come from somewhere, so I guess it worked. Liam Neeson delivers!
Just about as silly as Flightplan (2005), if not as hilariously bad as Turbulence (1997), Non-Stop is another reminder that air travel, real or reel, isn’t what it used to be. (The same goes for the career of its veteran producer, Joel Silver, who flew first or at least business class with Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Matrix.) The Blu-ray transfer is predictably stellar, which makes the economy CGI look all the worse the larger the monitor you have. Other than two brief making-ofs there is no extra content, which is only fitting, as this is one from a star’s assembly line and not for posterity.