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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • 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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence