Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Carey Stoll
Bill Marks is an alcoholic Air Marshall, exhausted, tired and needing a break, on a run from New York to England. While on the plane he receives a text on his encrypted government line that informs him that if whomever was on the other line did not have $150 Million dollars they would kill a passenger every twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Bill’s track record of paranoia and the would-be killer planting evidence against him, Bill has only himself to rely on to stop the maniac.
A lesson in prejudice and paranoia, from the very beginning we are tested on how quickly we all judge others by their appearance, tone of voice, and other minute, almost imperceptible pieces of information we consume when we take a single look at someone. Bill’s job is to judge. He needs to assess a situation, or a person as a potential threat and act accordingly, and what Non-Stop does beautifully is never let anyone off completely enough for Bill or the viewer to fully put all the pieces together.
Non-Stop is one part Agatha Christie and one part action film, and with a script as tight as this you can’t ask for a whole lot more. Everyone is guilty the moment Bill, in the first act, steps around a man who is talking on his Cell in the security check. You are not sure Bill is the aggressive one, or just being aloof. He may be an alcoholic, drinking in his car before the flight, but when he is on the job he does not partake in distracting polite conversation which, to some, seems like he might be hiding something.
The film deserves credit not just for layering clues to whom the antagonist might be, but also clues to relationships as well. Take for instance a scene where Bill Marks is settled in his seat, he asks the stewardess for a Gin & Tonic. When she comes back with his drink she sets down a bottled water. On first glance you presume she made a mistake, or it is some kind of code, but in fact, she has flown with him many times and is well aware of his penchant for the excessive intake of alcohol. It is subtleties like that that really get this reviewer excited, too many films want to spoon feed information so the audience can follow along instead of discover on their own.
Liam portrays Bill Marks as weak with a hint of fiery manic resting beneath the surface. He is a man that is waiting to break and only too soon might we witness it. He hints that he had a family but has not seen them long enough that he talks about them in the past tense, yet hides some small fraction of hopefulness inside his words like if he said them all out loud some kind of magic spell would break. Liam plays the strong action lead quite well, with his fatherly demeanour you want to follow him, listen to him. And when this towering 6’ 4” man barks orders one is not sure whether they want to run away and hide, or do as he says else he might hurt you.
What is most interesting is the use of known actors as the rest of the cast. To throw off the scent, so to speak. One is reminded of the opening sequence in Brian DePalma’s Mission Impossible where we meet Ethan’s team as they pull off their assignment, only to have Kristin Scott Thomas, Emelio Estevez – two very huge stars at the time- die within the first 20 minutes, leaving the audience to ponder is anyone sacred? So many times in film you can guess the murderer, or accomplice, simply because you know they are pulling in the big-time salary. Which makes Non-Stop a treat because you recognize most everyone who might have a part in the mystery including the voice of the great Shea Whigham as Agent Marenick who is coaching Bill through the troubles.
In a film such as Non-Stop, with its mystery explained to the audience in the trailer, which, to be sure, helped drive sales might very much be its undoing. A perfect example where knowing too much will have the hardened audience member not allow themselves to envelope themselves in the joy of the mystery unfolding in the speed to which Collet-Serra moves the story along, because they will be trying to outsmart the film, guessing through the clues and poking at what they think might be too obvious. A real shame.
A special Shout-out to Jim May’s editing. Lingering a hair longer on a potential suspect, or cutting away before we get all the information too soon, and through to the great action scenes that never feel like you are being rushed through them nor getting lost in the screen direction. Clear. Concise. Smooth. Similarly, the camera work is strong, well placed. Never allowing us to feel too claustrophobic in a film that so easily could have been: A mystery in a plane? How easy to solve, you have everyone there with you, yet as the camera pans over the passengers or a long lens espies a hand out of place, or a head that is nodding a little too much, we are there with Bill as a second set of eyes.
As with all mystery thrillers, where does the film fail and where does our astute weathered minds give falter for having a hundred years of movies locked away in our subconscious? Non-Stop has a few moments where an extra polish of the plot-points might have ironed out some inconsistencies. Perhaps a rework regarding the discussion of the intricacies of the main mystery in the 3rd act would help a clumsy, and more than a little confusing explanation as the why or why not certain actions the audience is asking themselves cannot be taken.
A strong lead, in Non-Stop brings much respect and gravitas to a tired genre that more than a few audience members will find manifest and off-putting. Yet, still a well written locked-room story with enough clues and red herrings to keep most whodunit fans entertained.