DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Liam Neeson became a bankable action hero in 2008 with the thriller "Taken." Now almost 62, he's still getting out of tight corners with his fists in the new action thriller "Non-Stop," most of which unfolds on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. The film also stars Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: For tens of millions the world over, in markets major and ancillary, the equation could hardly be simpler: big sad Irishman Liam Neeson plus big gun equals terrific entertainment. The X variable is that you have to like that sort of thing, and I do. And don't you diss "Taken," or for that matter the new all-but-certain Neeson blockbuster "Non-Stop."
A hijack mystery thriller directed by the Barcelona born Jaume Collet-Serra, who also made Neeson's "Unknown," and don't you diss "Unknown." Neeson is such an imposing, doleful hunk of a Hibernian, he gives everything he does - snapping a neck or taking a drink of water - a kind of gravitas.
In "Non-Stop" Neeson plays an air marshal, an incognito cop whom we first see swilling booze in his car outside the airport. He gets on a flight from the U.S. to London and orders a cocktail, which the attendant, played by Michelle Dockery from "Downton Abbey," pointedly doesn't give him.
Then Neeson starts getting text messages from someone onboard claiming a passenger will die every 20 minutes if $150 million are not deposited into his or her account. Yipes. There are so many red herrings in this thing, it's a wonder the theater doesn't smell like a fish market.
Jittery passenger Julianne Moore trades seats with computer guy Nate Parker for a window seat next to Neeson, and director Collet-Serra keeps lingering on Moore flashing Neeson significant looks. So suddenly you're thinking it's her, she's the one, then no, hold on, they just want us to think she's the one. She looks at him like that because she's thinking he's the one.
Then wait, how do we know he isn't the one, because he's Liam Neeson? What if he's, like, nuts and sending himself messages like in "Fight Club," where Edward Norton keeps beating himself up? But then the director lingers on another passenger flashing Neeson another look, and it all begins again: it's him, it's definitely him. It's her. Dockery is a suspect. So are the pilots. So is Corey Stoll, who played Hemingway in "Midnight in Paris," as a belligerent New York cop. At least he says he is.
And then there's Scoot McNairy as a guy who told Neeson outside the airport he was going to Amsterdam, not London.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NON-STOP")
LIAM NEESON: (As Bill Marks) What happened to Amsterdam?
SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Tom Bowen) I'm connecting to London.
NEESON: (As Marks) Show me your boarding pass. What's your name?
MCNAIRY: (As Bowen) Tom Bowen, why? Man, take it easy. Ow.
NEESON: (As Marks) Move.
MCNAIRY: (As Bowen) I didn't do anything. I have rights.
SHEA WHIGHAM: (As character) What the hell is going on there?
NEESON: (As Marks) The threat is real.
WHIGHAM: (As character) I want you to stop doing whatever you're doing immediately.
NEESON: (As Marks) I have a suspect in custody. I need a background check, Seat 24-E, Tom Bowen, B-O-W-E-N.
WHIGHAM: (As character) You have unlawfully subdued innocent passengers, Marks.
NEESON: (As Marks) I don't have time for this.
WHIGHAM: (As character) You called your supervisor before the flight and threatened him. He wouldn't book you an overtime flight, and you said you'd do what you have to do.
NEESON: (As Marks) I didn't threaten anyone.
WHIGHAM: (As character) Is that right, Marks?
NEESON: (As Marks) I need to run a full check on Tom Bowen, Seat 24-E.
WHIGHAM: (As character) Marks...
NEESON: (As Marks) Now, you're wasting time.
WHIGHAM: (As character) Marks, Agent Marks, you are hereby relieved of duty. Do you hear me?
(As Marks) (Unintelligible) someone on this plane is going to die. Do you hear me?
EDELSTEIN: The supervisor on the phone, played by a good actor named Shea Whigham, has never worked with Neeson and thinks he's the terrorist. The question hangs. Do we have enough information to play detective and figure out who's guilty? Or will the hijacker/killer be an arbitrary suspect who pops up in the climax and says it's me? Heh-heh. The answer to that question is: I'm not saying.
The key to a good B-mystery is that all the actors should be a little stilted. You should never know the difference between an actor acting badly and an actor acting very well someone acting badly. "Non-Stop" is well-made. There are all sorts of tightly packed frames and jangly close-ups and that omnipresent hum of engines and a pressurized cabin to make you claustrophobic.
The fights, when they come, are head-rocking. But there are some amazingly dumb moments, speeches that made me wince in embarrassment, and the final revelations are as clunky as the action is fluid. I don't know if it's too soon for a skyjacking B-movie that explicitly invokes 9/11, but Neeson adds the emotional credibility that puts "Non-Stop" over. Even when his lines are amazingly dumb, his presence is amazingly eloquent.
DAVIES: David Edelstein writes for New York magazine. This Sunday he'll be live-blogging the Oscars for the magazine's culture site, vulture.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.