A satisfying, primitive bluntness distinguishes “Non-Stop,” an action thriller that makes good on its title. In the 1950s, its star might have been Edmond O’Brien, a character actor who landed a few leading roles, including, in “D.O.A.,” as a poisoned man racing against the clock to find his murderer. With escalating clammy desperation he hurtles toward his fate, ticktock, ticktock. Liam Neeson runs a similarly frantic circuit in “Non-Stop,” as an air marshal trying to outwit a villain vowing to knock off a passenger every 20 minutes, ticktock, ticktock.
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When Mr. Neeson stirs an early morning drink with a toothbrush at the start of “Non-Stop,” the image suggests Denzel Washington’s boozing pilot in “Flight.” (Movies about really bad plane trips constitute a near subgenre, from the absurdist comedy of “Airplane!” to the spectacle of disaster in “Fearless.”) But Mr. Neeson’s character, Bill Marks, is a rather less complex cat: He’s an airborne cop with an apparently sad past and a sagging face and demeanor to go with his heartache. What complicates this early morning drink is that when the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, lingers on Mr. Neeson’s face, it’s a clear invitation to speculate on whether the actor’s eerie, unfocused look comes from the performance or from his life.
Watch 300 Rise of an Empire Online FreeSoon enough, Bill is on the move, strolling through an airport, profiling potential problems and settling into one of the fancier classes. By the time the seatbelt signs have flashed, Mr. Collet-Serra has efficiently introduced a handful of familiar faces — and prospective heroes and villains — including Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache and Shea Whigham. It’s the kind of well-stocked ensemble — shades of “Murder on the Orient Express” — that works because it expands the narrative options (him or her or him?).
Here, the casting, intentionally or not, has a touch of wit because Ms. Dockery (the iron Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey”) is working the aisles as an attendant, alongside Ms. Nyong’o (known as the enslaved Patsey in “12 Years a Slave”).
Bill isn’t a predictable hero, at least initially, but a palpably human and unreliable one who shakes from fear during takeoff and then locks himself in a bathroom, duct tapes the air vent and has a smoke. He also eyeballs alcohol like a man dying of thirst, betraying a struggle for self-control and suggesting a world of pain with a single sidelong look.
He’s unsettlingly unsettled for a guy with a gun, which adds to the sense of disquiet once he starts receiving text messages from someone threatening to kill passengers unless $150 million is deposited in an account. Bill begins strategizing, but while he seems capable enough, he’s an excitable, volcanic wreck, which makes the state of his mental health into something of a parallel, secondary mystery.
Written by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, “Non-Stop” works best before its secrets are spilled. Mr. Collet-Serra, who directed Mr. Neeson in “Unknown,” here sets the sober mood and a fast pace early. But he also throws in some light comedy (some from the fine Ms. Moore as an enigmatic flirt), so that the inherent claustrophobia of the setup doesn’t become too oppressive too quickly. The metaphoric walls need to close in slowly, not slam shut. The plot developments, Bill’s relentless zigzagging through the plane and the nimble camerawork — which features some impressively long takes — create so much momentum that you soon forget how constricted the space is until, that is, Mr. Collet-Serra reminds you with a vicious fight to the death in a bathroom.
“Non-Stop” doesn’t make any sense, but that’s expected, uninteresting and incidental to the pleasures of a slow-season Liam Neeson release as diverting as this one. A lot has been written about Mr. Neeson’s surprising resurrection as an older action hero, which has sometimes been more rewarding theoretically than cinematically.
Mr. Collet-Serra, however, makes good on that promise with a sure genre hand and real feeling for what Mr. Neeson brings to the screen at this stage of his career, including beauty etched by time and a still-imposing body that moves with the heaviness and grandeur of an old warrior raising his sword one last time. When Mr. Neeson runs through the aisles, he can sometimes seem too big for this vehicle, even if he turns out to be exactly right.