Suspense, action in Neeson’s latest ‘Non-Stop’

For better or worse, Liam Neeson has to some extent become synonymous with the archetype of the “washed-out, middle-aged man who shoots guns and shouts into phones.” Between 2008’s “Taken,” 2011’s “Unknown,” and 2012’s “Taken 2,” Neeson seems to have begun a descent into the deep, dark abyss of type-casting, as most of his live-action roles have essentially been the same old man holding the same guns and shouting into the same phones about why harming his wife and daughter would be highly inadvisable.

Fortunately, Neeson’s familiarity with the character archetype is one of his greatest strengths, as evident in Jaume Collet-Serra’s mystery thriller, “Non-Stop,” in which Neeson takes on a well-realized role in a cleverly-paced and, for the most part, well-realized film.

Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a federal U.S. air marshal and recovering alcoholic who hates flying. Upon boarding a trans-Atlantic non-stop flight from New York to London, Marks receives a strange text message over a secure network, in which the anonymous and enigmatic sender threatens to kill one person every 20 minutes unless $150 million is paid to a specific account. Upon alerting the crew aboard, they rebuff him, writing the message off as a hoax. It is only once the first passenger is killed that the rest of British Aqualantic Flight 10 begins to take the threat seriously. As Marks struggles to uncover the truth, he begins to realize his role in the killer’s sick little game.

The film’s greatest asset is its impeccable sense of pace, which evokes the kind of tension and restlessness that comes with a long overseas flight. A cramped business class cabin of a trans-Atlantic flight is a great space for a mystery story, and the film does a fantastic job of staging action scenes that take advantage of the cramped space of an airplane. Never before has an airplane bathroom been utilized so well as the stage for a major fight scene.

Visually, the film impresses, particularly in its use of pop-up text message windows that reflect characters’ personalities and otherwise turn an action as mundane as sending a text into a tense and dire moment in which a person’s life hangs in the balance.

The acting is superb, with Neeson’s aforementioned type-casting actually serving as a strength, as he is able to take his action-thriller persona and apply it to a setting akin to an Agatha Christie “locked room murder.” His performance as Marks does a fine job of portraying the character as a heavily-flawed and miserable antihero desperately in need of some kind of redemption. Julianne Moore (“Carrie”) also stars as Jen Summers, a woman sitting next to Marks whom he befriends and calls upon to help him uncover the identity of the killer. Rounding out the cast are flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery, TV’s “Restless”), and Captain David MacMillan (Linus Roache, “Batman Begins”).

The one complaint to be made about the film is that its ending seems a bit forced. This is a shame, especially given the spectacular pace of the rest of the film. Nevertheless, the film manages to shine throughout.

With “Non-Stop,” Liam Neeson seems to have grown into his role as an action hero and developed it beyond his incredibly stale character in “Taken.” The tension and action in “Non-Stop” coalesce into an experience so intense that viewers may find themselves with a bad case of jet lag afterward.

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