The label "durable," as in "durable leading man," has never fit Liam Neeson more than it does in these late-career action pictures that have become his bread and butter since Taken in 2008.
He still looks as if he can take a beating, and so he does. He looks as if he can administer one or two, so he does.
He looks as if he might have "particular skills" — his character's famous self-description in Taken — and he proves it.
In Non-Stop, those skills would be those of a U.S. air marshal, one of the guys entrusted with keeping airline flights free from hijackings. His character, Bill Marks, is a drinker and a smoker, a sad-eyed man who doesn't like to fly but still does this dangerous job — after he's had a toot in the parking lot, a snort in the bar or what not.
Neeson makes us believe in this guy, first frame to last.
Non-Stop is a solid, workmanlike action picture that builds slowly, bends over backwards to over-explain itself and its villain, and delivers a lulu of an ending.
Somebody is threatening the 150 passengers and crew in texts to Marks' cellphone, and framing Marks with the dirty work to his superiors back on the ground.
In the wee hours of this red-eye from New York to London, that first text arrives on his "secure" phone: "In exactly 20 minutes, I'm going to kill someone on this plane."
Marks had a nip from a bottle before boarding, but he's still sharp enough to observe and profile every face on the plane — the hostile bald guy, the young black man in the sunglasses and hoodie, the Muslim, this nervous man or that too-friendly woman.
Julianne Moore plays a helpful passenger sitting next to him. Michelle Dockery (of Downton Abbey) is the flight attendant who trusts him with their lives. Linus Roache (Priest) is the pilot who's willing to hear Marks out. (Lupita Nyong'o is another flight attendant.)
They all give him the benefit of the doubt, up to a point. The script goes to some pains to make Marks out as a possible suspect, something the viewer never buys into.
Marks struggles to get a handle on things, to keep the passengers in the dark. But as he rousts this one and manhandles that one, they get suspicious.
"Does this scenario seem familiar?" they start to ask one another. They're talking 9/11. Or maybe Agatha Christie's 10 Little Indians. They don't say.
Orphan director Jaume Collet-Serra does a little better by Neeson here than he managed with the identity-theft thriller Unknown (2011). Jumpy, unbroken tracking shots follow him through the confined space of the plane, building tension as Marks confronts people, trying to figure out who's texting him. Brawls in the confined spaces of a jetliner are thrillingly staged and edited.
But tension is in short supply as we lurch toward that lulu of a finale. The red herrings, throwing us off the scent of who is pulling the strings, are well-thought out; the resolution, not so much.
And then there's the talking, rationalizing villainous behavior. Yes, bad guys have a point of view. But only in the movies do they stop in the middle of the action to deliver it in a speech.
Neeson, at 61, is proving to be a more reliable action hero than any of his peers. Grizzled, wrinkled with care and worry, he's not just convincing as a guy with "particular skills," he's a man with the weight of the world — or a jetliner — on his shoulders. He's so real that he makes the somewhat unreal film surrounding him more grounded than Non-Stop has any right to be.