OK, Liam Neeson, we get it.
You’re a 61-year-old guy who can bust heads and snap arms with the best of them. And, yes, it worked like a charm in “Taken” — which packed the punch of surprise because who knew the guy from “Schindler’s List” was such a brawler? But the halo of goodwill from that film is starting to tarnish. How many of these types of movies is Neeson going to make?
Which brings us to his latest, “Non-Stop,” an efficiently made exercise in airplane claustrophobia that takes off well enough but then crash-lands in the third act under the weight of its red herrings, improbability and plot twists. It’s not a complete waste of time, but it is a waste of an extremely talented cast including Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy (“Argo”), Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”), Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and, of course, Neeson.
Bill Marks (Neeson) is a sad sack of a man struggling with alcoholism after his young daughter dies of cancer. He has lost his job as a cop but finds work as an air marshal, criss-crossing the skies as an undercover agent, hunting for any hint of wrongdoing among his fellow passengers.
The movie begins as Marks is scoping out what will turn out to be a fateful New York-to-London flight. Not long after takeoff and the making of small talk with his seatmate, Jen (Moore), he receives a text message on his cellphone, which is supposed to be a secure line. The message says that if a large amount of money isn’t wired to a certain number, there will be a death on the plane every 20 minutes.
It’s in these early moments when Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan,” “Unknown”), working from a script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, is at his most effective. After all, who isn’t just a bit tense when getting on a plane these days?
Collet-Serra builds on that fear and the suspicion that it could be anyone on board — including Jen, or the attentive and inquisitive flight attendant (Dockery) or maybe even the other marshal who’s on the flight — who’s sending the texts. In fact, one of the film’s best scenes is a little mano-a-mano action between the air marshals within the confines of an airplane restroom.
Marks starts interrogating (and abusing) just about everyone, including a mild-mannered teacher (McNairy), an off-duty New York City cop (Stoll) and a mouthy young man (Corey Hawkins).
But the longer the plane stays in the air and the closer the film gets to its big reveal, the more it unravels. In predictable fashion, the evildoer even takes time out in the midst of the climactic evildoing to explain everything. And that’s coupled with the usual round of disaster-movie child endangerment that was presaged early on when Marks talks a skittish young girl — traveling alone to meet her dad in England — into boarding the plane.
For all of its flaws, though, “Non-Stop” does generate more scares and suspense than another recent Neeson skull-knocker, the abysmal “Taken 2.” But the really terrifying thing is what’s on the list of Neeson’s upcoming projects: “Taken 3.”
It looks like “non-stop” is also the phrase that sums up the trajectory of Neeson’s career these days.