Non-Stop, film review: Liam Neeson's tough guy act is on target in this suspenseful drama

3.00

(12A) Jaume Collet-Serra, 106 mins Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy

Alfred Hitchcock famously distinguished between "surprise" and "suspense". If a bomb goes off without forewarning, that's surprise. If we, as an audience, are tipped off in advance that the timer is running and that the bomb will explode at precisely one o'clock, that is suspense.

The Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra and his writers Chris Roach and John Richardson take a very literal approach to Hitchcock's definition of suspense. Again and again in the fitfully entertaining but wildly manipulative Non-Stop, we see stopwatches being set.

Michelle Dockery interview: Downton's Lady Mary talks starring with Liam Neeson

Again and again, we are warned that catastrophe is imminent. "In exactly 20 minutes, I am going to kill someone on this plane," the unknown villain tells us in a text. That is only the first of the timed warnings that are dotted throughout the movie.

The film-makers borrow randomly from 1970s disaster movies and from pot-boiling, Agatha Christie-style whodunits. You sense that they've been through a thorough checklist of plot elements and character types before the plane has even been allowed to take off. Yes, there is a doctor aboard. Yes, among the passengers is a doe-eyed little girl hugging a teddy bear. Poison? Yes. Bomb? Yes. Airplane captain flirting with glamorous flight attendant? Yes. Parachute? Yes. Couple having sex in business class? Yes. Turbulence? Yes. People vomiting and dying because of eating airline food? No.

Non-Stop is not a film that will appeal to the airline industry. In its lesser moments, it seems like just another crudely mechanical and increasingly preposterous thriller set during a particularly hellish plane journey. However, true to the title, it does indeed strike a relentless narrative tempo. There are at least hints that Collet-Serra is trying to push beyond the genre's conventions.

It helps that the 61-year-old lead, Liam Neeson, has a gravitas and a brooding sense of melancholy that younger action stars often lack. Just so we know that he is on the washed-up side, he is shown here early on stirring his paper cup of whisky with his toothbrush. His character, Bill Marks, is a US Air Marshal who has been traumatised by a family tragedy. Marks has taken to drink, is full of self-pity and (somewhat ridiculously, given his job) has an acute fear of flying. Initially, he seems closer to Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder's famous 1945 drama about alcoholism, than he does to Jason Bourne.

It's a mystery as to why an actress as accomplished as Julianne Moore would take a role as skimpily written as the one she has here (Universal Pictures) It's a mystery as to why an actress as accomplished as Julianne Moore would take a role as skimpily written as the one she has here (Universal Pictures)
Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in Unknown, sets up the film in intriguing fashion. We see the hungover Marks making his way on to the plane, eyeing up fellow passengers, who come in all ages and all guises. He is expecting a routine flight and even makes small talk with Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), a glamorous but aloof woman whose yearning to sit in a window seat seems suspicious.

When it all gets too much for Neeson, his default behaviour is to lock himself in the bathroom and have a fag. At times here, we half suspect that he might be as delusional as the insomniac office worker in David Fincher's Fight Club, an Air Marshal seeing phantoms where none exist. Even more intriguingly, there are moments when Neeson doesn't seem quite sure whether he is the hero or the villain. "Control is an illusion," he is told by his antagonist. Crossing the Atlantic with a maniac in their midst, 40,000 feet in the air, he and the passengers crammed into the plane are powerless to influence events.

It is a testament to Neeson that he is able to give us so much sense of his character's inner life in an action movie that is otherwise so one-dimensional. He has a wounded-lion quality as he blunders up and down the aisles.

The rest of the cast have largely thankless and underwritten roles. Michelle Dockery is a doughty, quick-thinking flight attendant. She at least has a few lines of dialogue. That's more than her fellow attendant Lupita Amondi Nyong'o, so striking in 12 Years a Slave but shamefully underused here. It is likewise a mystery as to why an actress as accomplished as Julianne Moore would take a role as skimpily written as the one she has here.

There are fleeting references to 9/11 and the terror it unleashed in the American public. Not that Collet-Serra wants to probe too far into the politics of fear. This is ultimately a fairground ride of a movie in which the aim is to excite and terrify audiences, not to provoke too much thought.

Michelle Dockery plays a doughty, quick-thinking flight attendant (Universal Pictures) Michelle Dockery plays a doughty, quick-thinking flight attendant (Universal Pictures)
Thanks to the cryptic but threatening text messages he has been receiving on his secure phone, Neeson knows that his Moriarty- like adversary is on the plane, probably sitting only a few feet from him. One of the pleasures of the film is the Cluedo-like game of trying to identify the villain. It could be anybody.

Some of the action scenes are very cleverly handled. There is a tremendous fight sequence in the tiny airplane bathroom, where space is so tight that it is barely possible to even throw a punch. The film-makers play up the claustrophobic settings as much as they do the time constraints.

"It doesn't make any sense," Neeson's character laments as he struggles forlornly to work out his adversary's motivation and behaviour. The remark could just as well apply to the plot, which becomes increasingly absurd the further the flight progresses.

Then again, there is no reason why suspense movies need to be logical or coherent. All they need is a bomb under the table (or in the overhead locker) and plenty of advanced warning that it is going to go off... unless Liam Neeson saves everyone first. Neeson's emergence so late in his career as one of contemporary cinema's most bankable tough guys may be surprising but he certainly can't be accused of skimping his action-man duties here.

Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
News
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
books
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
art
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
film
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
TV
News
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
books
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
music
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
music
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May