Neeson fine, but villain motivation almost derails ‘Non-Stop’

This is a horror element that the movie industry likes to employ. A person authorized to wear a badge and carry a firearm has a seriously messed up or tragically altered personal life, making great potential for dangerous instability.

Such is the case with Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks in the thriller “Non-Stop.” Bill is first seen sitting in his vehicle with the look of a person gloomily dreading another day of work. He needs a bracer of hard liquor to help him cope. The kicker here is that Bill is a U.S. Air Marshal, his workplace being commercial aircraft in which he is tasked with thwarting terrorism or any other unlawful activity.

Neeson has found a niche in recent years of portraying men who have resigned themselves to the fact that the profession in which they are engaged – and superbly so – requires violence and dedication that often kills any semblance of a normal life. And certainly being an air marshal – a job wherein if you have to spring into action it means you are dealing with some very dangerous people – is not the kind of work for someone who prefers a routine if occasionally stressful occupation.

Assigned to a flight to London, Bill is already irked about the prospect of being stuck in England for three days before being able to return to the United States. Yet despite that irritation, once he is in the airport he begins his work, scoping out fellow passengers, looking for any sign of possible trouble.

On board before take-off he goes into the lavatory and puts duct tape over the smoke alarm so he can enjoy a cigarette. Then later, when the passenger sitting next to him, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), notices his anxiety, he confesses that he gets nervous when the aircraft takes off. Then he settles down.

But settling down is not going to be possible on this flight.

He receives an anonymous text, via what is supposed to be a secure network, stating that if $150 million is not transferred to a certain off-shore account in 20 minutes, someone on board the airliner will be killed, with another person killed every 20 minutes until the funds transfer is confirmed. Additional texts taunt Bill, detailing personal information about Bill’s life, leading him to believe his on-board air marshal partner, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), is pulling off a sick joke. Hammond convinces him otherwise but insists that Bill keep cool because the threat is likely a hoax.

The script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle is at its best at this point as Bill tries to locate the person delivering the threat while also arranging with the pilot to have the ransom transferred to the designated account, only to find himself outflanked by the plotter, making it look like Bill is the actual person attempting to hijack the plane.

Of course there are several potential suspects and none of them can be ruled out for certain, so the suspense builds nicely. Unfortunately, “Non-Stop” falls victim to a problem that deflates a lot of effective thrillers, and that is once the bad guy is revealed there has to be an obligatory pause in the action as that person reveals a motivation for the crime. Rather than having the standard reasons for the threats and murders such as terrorism, extortion or greed, the screenwriting trio tried to get clever with what they thought might be a unique twist. But it is so ludicrous that it prompts eye-rolling and almost derails the movie.

Fortunately, the nail-biting final sequence of whether the imperiled aircraft will survive helps put the movie back on track.

Neeson carries this movie, nailing yet again a portrayal of a man who must set aside his personal demons and tragedies and be strong when so many people are depending on him. Most of the supporting cast, including Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), does not get much to do. Moore has a few good moments as the enigmatic Jen Summers, as well as Corey Stull as a passenger who looks like he could be capable of committing violent acts against people.

Airline thrillers have the advantage of being heart-pounding action with the confined spaces, the high speed and altitude and potential for nasty conclusions. It’s too bad the writers tried too hard with a key plot element, but “Non-Stop” does mostly succeed as an adrenalin-pulsing movie.

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