Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I just love it when a movie delivers on its premise. “Gravity” promised moviegoers the chance to watch Sandra Bullock float through a green-screened outer space, and that’s what they got. “Pacific Rim” promised giant robots fighting Godzilla-sized space aliens, and it did not disappoint. With “Non-Stop,” the premise is one that has become a yearly routine for Hollywood, and a routine that I personally enjoy: the “Liam Neeson Shoots (name of bad guy) in the Face” movie. That is exactly what was promised, and it’s exactly what I got.

Neeson is an enigma. He has gone from giving critically acclaimed performances in “Schindler’s List” and “Les Miserables” to creating action-packed, eye candy blockbusters like “Taken” and “The Grey.” As an actor, Neeson possesses the charm and gravitas that allow him to take the cliched, John Wayne-esque characters on paper and transform them into something watchable — believable, even. In “Non-Stop,” Neeson plays Federal Air Marshal Bill Marks, who has turned to alcoholism to numb the pain of losing his 8-year-old daughter to cancer (he even drinks on the job). The whole “mourning, anti-heroic alcoholic” cliche is easily exploitative in nature, but Neeson’s acting chops gives this wooden characterization some much-needed life.

The movie follows Marks as he sits next to fellow passenger Jen Summers (played by Julianne Moore in a sadly underwritten role, since all the characterization goes to Neeson’s character) on a nonstop flight from New York to London. Marks suddenly receives a startling text from an unknown number: He must transfer $150 million into a specific bank account (which Marks later learns is his own bank account), or else one passenger on board will die every 20 minutes. These 20-minute intervals provide an unusually worthwhile push for the plot; as different passengers on board begin to die, and the mystery texter keeps up with every trick that Marks tries to pull out of his sleeve, the audience is left with red herrings left and right. While this device is typical of the genre, the film’s constant misdirection keeps the audience visually engaged.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re not one for simple, good ol’ fashioned eye candy, then the numerous plot holes stick out as ridiculous problems hidden in plain sight, many of which include: How exactly did the texter manage to hack into the plane’s network and obtain Marks’ cell phone number? How did the antagonist gain access to Marks’ bank account without his knowledge? Why doesn’t anybody notice the first dead passenger sitting in a lavatory for several hours? The plot never demands that you question how it works, but simply requests that you watch Liam Neeson kick some ass.

However, the pacing and suspense that the film builds up fall apart in the disappointing third act. Directors of thrillers often find themselves in a quagmire over how to keep the exciting, edge-of-your-seat feeling of the film once the movie’s bad guy reveals himself. “Non-Stop” falls into that same trap. Director Jaume Collet-Serra fully exploits our fears of in-flight terrorism in our post-9/11 society by giving his antagonists purely political reasons for their doings. Without revealing too many spoilers, I can say that their words are nothing but ranty and didactic ramblings. If the director envisioned throwing in any useful political commentary in the third act, rather than stick with the winning formula that worked for most of his film, it didn’t even look like he tried.

Rating: 3.5 stars