Liam Neeson’s late-career transformation into the ass-kicking headliner of big-budget B-movies, jump-started by 2008’s smash-hit “Taken,” has been as welcome as it was unexpected. Who, a decade ago, would have guessed that the then-52-year-old actor, having just shaken off the image-tarnishing “Star Wars: Episode I” with an Academy Award nomination for his dignified portrayal of Alfred Kinsey, would become one of America’s biggest badasses by the time he hit 60? It’s an achievement that looks especially impressive in light of the recent failed attempts at career rebirths by former action stars in Neeson’s age-bracket, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. More importantly, Neeson’s success is entirely deserved, as he masters the suave-but-intimidating, don’t-mess-with-me attitude to a degree that Arnie and Sly no longer can.
“Non-Stop,” Neeson’s second collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra in three years (following the pulpy-good “Unknown”) is perhaps the best Neeson-as-badass vehicle yet, largely due to the fact that it cranks the camp-factor up to 11. For all their goofy pleasures, “Taken” and “Unknown”—I like to pretend “Taken 2” doesn’t exist and recognize that “The Grey” is in a different league—at least tried to keep a straight face. But that’s hardly the case with this romp, which gives the audience plenty of cues to hoot and holler at the screen. Neeson plays an air marshal who, aboard a routine flight, begins to receive text messages—every one of which is, for the first half of the movie, accompanied by perhaps the most obnoxious tone you’ve ever heard—from an unidentified passenger threatening to kill fellow travelers every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into a specified bank account. Soon, that meager death-allowance becomes insufficient for the ransom-demander and a ticking bomb is discovered onboard. But the movie isn’t just a straight thriller. In what little exposition we’re provided, we learn that Neeson is a drunk who’s lost his family and has nothing more to lose, meaning he could actually be the sinister texter, texting himself.
OK, sure, no matter how much Collet-Serra and Neeson tease us with the idea of an unreliable, insane protagonist, we don’t really believe Neeson’s going to be the bad guy, because everybody knows he’s already fulfilled his evil quota for the New Millenium with the ever-popular R’as al Ghul. This is just another element of trickery to be relished in a movie that’s as pulpy as “Non-Stop.” Plus, the “hopeless drunk” element of the character—whose name is Bill Marks, by the way, but I’m going to keep calling him Liam Neeson—allows him to “logically” start swigging alcohol at a moment when the passengers are crazed and the plane is at risk of going kabluey. It feels as though there isn’t a minute in the film that goes by in which Collet-Serra and Neeson don’t ask “How can we make this even more ludicrous?” and the result is wholly exuberant, not just for its silly energy but because Collet-Serra is a legitimately good craftsman and Neeson is a formidable screen presence.
I could rattle off the highlights, but this would only be spoiling the fun. Just wait until you see how the movie integrates post-9/11 social commentary, or a visual gag involving Neeson’s cracked phone screen. And I’ve gone without mentioning the intrigue drummed up by Julianne Moore and soon-to-be-Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) lurking in the background as passenger and flight attendant, respectively. We’re left to wonder: Don’t big names like these have to factor prominently into the final plot reveal, or is their presence just a big fake-out? That said, it’s hard to spend too much time making predictions about how the film will end up, given the rate at which it barrels toward its action-packed conclusion. “Non-Stop” is a popcorn movie to be cherished.