In an essay called “The Simple Art of Murder,” author Raymond Chandler lamented the preponderance of mystery novels whose flowery machinations outstripped their common sense. He argued that good fiction should respect the world it strives to recreate, and that stories in any genre only work to the degree that they can hold that kind of water. He said, in part: “If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce.” In other words, there’s nothing wrong with being a light novel; it’s being a dumb light novel where you start to have problems. You insult the reader. You ignore common sense. You inspire people not to ask “What’s going to happen next?” but to mutter “They can’t be serious.” You wind up with works that are frustrating, irritating, and disappointing, the kind of things that leave a bad taste in your mouth. Non-Stop is definitely such a movie — it’s packed with ridiculous contrivances that rely for their success on staggeringly stupid characters and situations, and it’s sluggishly paced and narratively inept, to boot. It is about as forgettable and impermanent a thing as you can be and still reasonably be called a movie. But its sloppiness is not surprising. If anything, it would be weird if the movie weren’t somehow a derivative, half-hearted mess. In other words, if it were different from almost any other Liam Neeson movie from the past few years.
Recently, Neeson has seen a specific kind of career resurgence thanks to the success of 2009’s Taken, which made close to $150 million domestically and inspired a sequel that did almost as well. Not even Neeson expected the film to be a hit. Speaking to Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Neeson said he figured the film would go straight to DVD. “It just seemed such a simple little story, I thought,” he said. “There was nothing complex about it. It is a guy going — determined to find his daughter. Oh yeah. OK. Oh, look. He finds her. And he kills all these guys.” It set a pattern, though, and Neeson found himself doing pretty much the same “he kills all these guys” stuff in 2011’s Unknown, 2012’s Taken 2, and now Non-Stop. He also appeared in The Grey, Battleship, The A-Team, and Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. There are a couple of peaks in there — The Grey is taut and psychologically honest, and The A-Team is fun without being too smug; not coincidentally, the same man, Joe Carnahan, directed both — but overall, it’s a pretty bland slate of mid-level action. They are the dumb light novels, works made from little thought and requiring even less from the viewer. More troubling, they are quickly becoming the basis for the only screen identity Neeson has ever had.
Neeson’s always been a working actor, someone who takes his parts and does his job. He was in some real dreck in the 1980s, but Schindler’s List elevated his stature and proved he could deliver genuine performances. Yet just as quickly as he arrived, he seemed to wander. Rob Roy and Michael Collins rode the coattails of Braveheart’s historical martyrdom; Before and After and The Haunting were unsatisfying thrillers. Neeson’s biggest film of this middle period was Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, in which he gamely chewed his way through wooden dialogue and murky mythology, and from there it was odds and ends, everything from Kinsey to Love Actually to voice acting in Narnia movies. Before Taken came along, there were other movies that most people have likely forgotten entirely, if they even saw them at all: if you can recount the plots of Seraphim Falls or The Other Man, bully for you.
Essentially, Liam Neeson is now famous for being Liam Neeson, and for acting like “Liam Neeson” in movies. His screen presence has settled into a template of basic behaviors: worry, anger, a quick temper, a love for family (inevitably a daughter), an inability to keep his relationships together, and a deadening lack of chemistry with his female lead. Non-Stop, then, while terrible as a film, makes perfect sense as a Liam Neeson movie. This is the kind of kit-assembled thriller Neeson has been in for half a decade now. They turn a profit, and they probably pay well. That they’re dumb light novels isn’t in dispute, but it also might be beside the point. Had Non-Stop been a good movie — or at least better than it is — it would’ve been a nice surprise, but as is, its shoddiness isn’t groundbreaking. This is just what’s next.
Neeson’s age is starting to show, though. He turns 62 this year, which is an improbable age for any action star, so Non-Stop shaves a decade off his age (witnessed in a shot of his character’s passport) to try and make him a more believable hero. Here, he plays a Bill Marks, a slow-moving air marshal with a drinking problem and a home life in shambles, and he’s only a few minutes into a transatlantic flight to London when he gets an ominous text message: an anonymous villain wants $150 million in 20 minutes or he’ll kill someone, and then keep killing every 20 minutes thereafter until his needs are met. His reaction to this, strangely, is to huff and grunt with a general “here we go again” attitude; for all the tension such a situation would create, Marks seems to almost expect it. And that’s because Neeson, director Jaume Collet-Serra, and three credited screenwriters are subconsciously treating the moment as the latest challenge for “Liam Neeson” the screen presence, and not a narrative challenge for Bill Marks the air marshal. There’s no build-up, no characterization, no sense of anything other than “Let’s get down to business and wrap by dinner.” It’s one thing to make a ripoff like Non-Stop because Neeson had a hit with Taken; it’s another to not even pretend you’re doing anything but re-staging Taken as fanfic.
The film’s dumb lightness sets in immediately. Marks sets out trying to find the person who’s making the threats. His list of possible suspects includes Jen (Julianne Moore), who’s seated next to him and who’s been in contact with him while he gets text messages, thus ruling her out; a captain and crew who have known him for a long time; an antsy passenger (Corey Stoll) eventually revealed to be NYPD; and a passenger played by prominent character actor Scoot McNairy, who approaches Neeson at the airport before takeoff and asks him questions about his destination. You can draw your own conclusions here. Soon enough, Non-Stop becomes the worst kind of thriller: instead of watching smart people solve problems, we watch dumb people grow confused. Marks does his best to start thinning his list of suspects and finding the hidden terrorist, yet somehow, through a series of mixups, his supervisors on the ground become convinced that Marks is actually the hijacker. It’s the kind of twist that should give you pause, but the filmmakers are already onto the next such setup. At one point, there’s a bomb hidden inside drugs that are hidden inside a briefcase, and the bomb is actually central to two separate and self-negating plot explanations given minutes apart: one in which Marks was never meant to find the bomb, since it’s impossible to defuse and the explosion is intended to cover up what’s really happening on the plane, and one in which he was supposed to find the bomb and order the plane to fly at a lower, explosion-safe altitude, allowing the bad guys to parachute to freedom from the resulting hole in the fuselage. This is the kind of thing it’s actually not safe to think about for more than a moment or two unless you want to risk an aneurysm.
Yet perhaps nothing here is quite so unfortunate as the filmmakers’ attempts to turn their dumb light story into something that reaches for political relevancy. The villain, it turns out, doesn’t just want money, but is trying to make a point about weaknesses in homeland security in the wake of 9/11, which killed his father, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the villain served and became disillusioned about life in general. This moment of awkward pandering, rendered in a clumsy exposition dump, is somehow more offensive than the idea that Bill Marks can win a gunfight in zero-gravity while the plane is out of control. Apparently it wasn’t enough for the bad guy to just want money, yet this is also the kind of movie where an extra exclaims, with a total lack of irony, “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die!” Who are we really trying to kid? It is exactly as predictable and repetitive and disappointing as the other movies Neeson’s made recently, and that he’ll probably keep making for a while. It’s dumb, and light, and completely forgettable. Taken 3 is already in the works.