The label “durable” – as in “durable leading man” – has never fit Liam Neeson more than it does in these late-career action pictures that have become his bread and butter since “Taken.”
He still looks like he can take a beating, and so he does. He looks as if he can administer one or two, and he does.
He looks like he might have “particular skills,” his character’s famous self-description in “Taken.” And he proves it.
In “Non-Stop,” the skills would be those of a U.S. air marshal, one of the guys entrusted with keeping airline flights free from hijackings. His Bill Marks is a drinker and a smoker, a sad-eyed man who doesn’t like to fly but still does this dangerous job for a living – after he’s had a toot in the parking lot, a snort in the bar or whatnot.
And Neeson makes us believe in this guy, first frame to last.
“Non-Stop” is a solid, workmanlike action picture that builds slowly, bends over backward to over-explain itself and its villain and delivers a lulu of an ending.
Somebody is sending threats concerning the 150 passengers and crew to Marks’ cellphone. In the wee hours of this redeye flight from New York to London, that first text arrives on his “secure” phone.
“In exactly 20 minutes, I’m going to kill someone on this plane,” it reads.
Marks may have had a nip from a bottle before boarding, but he’s still sharp enough to observe and profile every face on the plane: the hostile bald guy, the young black man in the sunglasses and hoodie, the Muslim, this nervous man or that too-friendly woman.
Julianne Moore plays a helpful passenger sitting next to him. Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) is the flight attendant who trusts him with their lives. Linus Roache is the pilot who’s willing to hear Marks out.
They all give him the benefit of the doubt, up to a point. The script goes to some pains to make Marks out as a possible suspect, something the viewer never buys into.
Marks struggles to get a handle on things, to keep the passengers in the dark. But as he rousts this one and manhandles that one, they understandably get suspicious.
There are New Yorkers on board. “Does this scenario seem familiar?” they start to ask one another. They’re talking 9/11. Or maybe Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.” They don’t say.
“Orphan” director Jaume Collet-Serra does a little better by Neeson here than he managed with the identity-theft thriller “Unknown.” Jumpy, unbroken tracking shots follow Neeson through the confined space of the plane, building tension as Marks confronts this person or that one, trying to figure out who’s texting him. Brawls in the confined spaces of a jetliner – a lavatory, for instance – are thrillingly staged and edited.
But the tension dwindles as we lurch toward that aforementioned finale. The red herrings, throwing us off the scent of who is pulling the strings, are well-thought out; the resolution, not so much.
And then there’s the rationalizing of villainous behavior. Sure, bad guys have a point of view. Only in the movies do they stop, in the middle of the action, to deliver it in a speech.
But Neeson, at 61, is proving to be a more reliable action hero than any of his peers. Grizzled, wrinkled with care and worry, he’s not just convincing as a guy with “particular skills,” he’s a man with the weight of the world – or a jetliner, in this case – on his shoulders. He’s so real that he makes the somewhat unreal film surrounding him more grounded than “Non-Stop” has any right to be.