Action heroes with nothing to lose are the best kind, perhaps the only kind worth watching. In the opening seconds of Jaume Collet-Serra's Non-Stop, Liam Neeson's federal air marshal Bill Marks slumps in his parked vehicle while sloshing a few glugs of whiskey into a paper cup and stirring it with a toothbrush handle. Then he readies himself for work by taking a hit of Binaca and pausing for a moment to finger a snapshot of an adorable tot. In movie shorthand, everything he stands to lose or has already lost is there in that photograph, and Neeson plays to it as if it were a big-name costar. Somehow, this fine and serious actor who has reinvigorated his career in middle age by becoming an action hero can get away with this sort of thing. He has the face, noble and sad, of a wounded lion; his eyes plead, "Won't you remove this thorn from my paw?"
If only Non-Stop were worthy of him. Neeson does just about everything right in this terror-in-the-skies thriller, as does costar Julianne Moore in the somewhat thankless role of seatmate and possible love interest. Almost everybody who's anybody right now shows up in a small role: There's Scoot McNairy as a mild-mannered traveling schoolteacher, Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery as a cool-as-a-cuke flight attendant, and Lupita Nyong'o sporting a killer Grace Jones flattop — Nyong'o also plays a flight attendant, and unfortunately her lines are limited to things like, "This is my first time on this route" and "I can't believe this is happening."
But the dialogue isn't really the problem. Neeson's preternaturally dejected Marks has barely schlepped onto a New York-to-London flight when his trouble begins; the movie's problems take a little longer to reveal themselves. Just after takeoff, he receives a mysterious text telling him that if a gazillion dollars (or thereabouts) isn't wired into a special account within 20 minutes, someone on the plane will die. What's more, this mystery texter seems to know very personal details about Marks, including his penchant for drinking on the job. Marks immediately takes action, but neither he nor we can be sure it's the right action. Guided by his addled sense of duty, he does some smart things — like enlisting new acquaintance Jen Summers (Moore) to help him scan video surveillance screens to see which passengers in the cabin might be using their fingers and thumbs to send the offending messages — and some very dumb things, things that, if this were a real-life flight, would incite instant panic among the passengers.
Yet weirdly, the passengers on this possibly doomed flight barely blink while Marks, who by this point has blown his cover as a marshal, violates their civil liberties left and right. Eventually, though — and be forewarned that some minor spoilers follow — they learn from watching a live New York 1 report on their little video screens that Marks might be trying to hijack the plane himself. Only then do they decide to mutiny.
Let's forget, for a moment, the passengers on this particular transatlantic flight have the means to watch live news coverage revealing details of an event that's unfolding right before their eyes. Their carrier is, after all, a fictional outfit that may as well be called Glam Airlines, where the attendants wear impossibly chic sheath dresses and totter about on spindly, sky-high Manolo Blahniks. Nobody is demanding an action-thriller plot that's 100 percent plausible. But is 55 percent too much to ask?
By the end of Non-Stop, we've been asked to buy wholesale about 2,000 things that could never, ever happen in the world the filmmakers, and we, actually live in. But worse than that, those things make little sense even in the context of movie fiction. At one point, Neeson's boss gets on the phone and tells him to stop whatever he's doing or "we'll shoot you down." As we're left to ponder the likelihood that the government would shoot down a plane full of innocent people simply to teach one obstreperous marshal a lesson — it could happen, I guess — other dumb stuff happens: We learn that a murder by peashooter has possibly occurred. And the individual who might be responsible for all of this mayhem reveals himself, unreeling a motivation that sounds like something a third-grader might make up to explain to his mother just who left that chocolate-milk stain on her couch and why.
You might be thinking, Who cares? This flick is supposed to be fun, mindless, action entertainment. But an entertainment that invites us to lose ourselves in it needs to do a little thinking for us in advance. (This atrocity of a screenplay is credited to John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle.) Why set up intriguing plot possibilities if you can't see them all the way through with even a modicum of logic? Non-Stop is particularly frustrating because there are so many things Collet-Serra does right, including staging a hand-to-hand combat sequence in an airplane bathroom. Two guys can do a lot of damage in a tiny space — a head crashes into a mirror; fingers gouge into soft flesh — and the director captures it all with wit and vigor. But in the end, Non-Stop is a waste of a perfectly good Neeson, and of our time and goodwill. Please make it stop.