For one hour, “Non-Stop” is that rare and welcome pleasure: A first-rate cerebral thriller.
After that, bending to the requisite Hollywood mayhem, it indulges in a ludicrous mid-air escalation of violence. Even in its decline, it is mercifully humane compared to the accompanying trailers we had suffered before the movie began. One upcoming movie was shown with this plotline: ”All crimes in this country will be legal for a 24-hour period.” How about that for a premise? But, that’s the movie chain system: violent film, violent trailers. You don’t preview “The Conjuring” and follow it with “Snow White.”
Back to “Non-Stop,” and with delight. Liam Neeson is the essence of personal power. He needs no gestures, tools or even words. It’s just there in his quiet intelligence. Whether he’s hero or villain – and he’s equally good at both – just try looking at anyone else when he’s on screen. He owns it without saying a word. Julianne Moore does a fine job as a mysterious, flirtatious passenger, and there’s good fun in watching Michelle Dockery as an American flight attendant in a changeup from her regular turn on “Downton Abbey.”
In “Non-Stop” Neeson plays William Marks, federal air marshal, and we learn before a word is spoken that he has a drinking problem. Armed with that information, we are eager to learn the why of it. After Bill is seated next to Jen (Julianne Moore), he receives a text on his cellphone: “In exactly 20 minutes I’m going to kill someone on this plane. I want $150,000,000.” Until he gets it, he will kill a passenger every 20 minutes.
Cellphones are major players as the villain taunts us repeatedly with plot twists that immerse us in an avalanche of shifting loyalties and surprises. A good part of the fun lies not just in the guessing game about the identity of the texter but in trying to decipher his motive. Is it really about money? That seems too simplistic as well as too difficult to pull off. What he does have in place is an inspired plan to defeat Marshal Marks by playing on Marks’ recent fall from grace after a personal tragedy. The texter peppers us with questions as Marks tries desperately to identify the culprit, and we are part of that game. That’s the good part.
All too soon we are dropped into an overwrought finale – an explosion of fisticuffs, betrayals and sudden new alliances. The effect is one of leaving in the middle of a great detective story to plunge into an action figure movie – like those trailers we had been forced to watch. But here’s the truth of it: It was very hard work trying to pick a suspect from 150 passengers, so be grateful that the movie will do it for you. And, if you aren’t terrified in the final 8-second countdown, then you really can’t consider yourself a genuine movie lover.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is Joan.Ellis.com.