By Van Roberts

Despite its shoddy CGI shots of a bogus jetliner plunging earthward with two jet fighters flanking it, “Non-Stop”  qualifies as an extremely preposterous but thoroughly entertaining airborne mystery-thriller.  At 61-years of age, rugged Liam Neeson stars as troubled U.S. Air Marshal William Marks. Not only has Marks survived the death of his cancer-ridden, adolescent daughter, but he has also experienced a devastating divorce along with the loss of his 25-year job as a New York City Police Department detective. Meantime, the unshaven Marks has deteriorated into a guilt-ridden, nicotine-addicted, alcoholic plagued by memories of his grim past. At one point during this tense as well as terse PG-13-rated melodrama, our hero exposes his clay feet and describes himself as a deplorable dad.  A flawed hero usually wins an audience’s sympathy, and the scruffy Neeson emerges as an affable enough protagonist with a dark mood or two. He winds up tangling with a homicidal hijacker who has skewered his authority in the eyes of his superiors.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra of “Orphan” and rookie writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle challenge us with a gallery of unusual suspects when they aren’t playing a game of charades with us about the hijacker’s identity.  Naturally, they dole out red herrings galore to throw us off the scent. Unless you’re blessed as a psychic, you may have a difficult time exposing the perpetrator.  Cunningly, for the better part of its white-knuckled 106 minutes, Collet-Serra keeps a variety of paranoid passengers bottled up inside the cramped confines of an airliner and kindles sufficient tension within this combustible setting after our hero discovers a ticking time-bomb on board.  Rarely does Collet-Serra and company relieve the tension by cross-cutting to exterior scenes of ground personnel until the end.  Indeed, you may find yourself feeling a little claustrophobic before an explosive but formulaic finale. Unfortunately, “Non-Stop” suffers from a dire lack of plausibility, but the filmmakers compensate with a compelling mystery, slickly staged combat action scenes, and a brisk, snappy pace that never lets up. Although neither as gripping as either “Flightplan” nor as serious as 9/11 hijacking epic”United 93,” “Non-Stop” generates more than enough suspenseful, edge-0f-the-seat seconds to offset its superficial moments. What it does wrong may be overlooked charitably enough because it is a movie instead of a real-life predicament.  Whoever heard of a cop accepting a gun from a man that he doesn’t know and then neglecting to see if the firearm is loaded?  The cast is strong and does a good job of diverting us from the identity of the hijacker.

William Marks isn’t having the time of his life as an undercover U.S. Federal Air Marshal when he boards British Aqualantic Flight 10 heading for Heathrow.  Initially, he coaxes an anxious little girl aboard the 767 airliner after he recovers the plush toy she left behind. What better way could the filmmakers have aligned our sympathies with the hero than by showing him sticking up for a lonely little girl on her first flight.  Ironically, Marks loses it every time the plane that he is guarding takes off. He wraps a ribbon around his hand that once belonged to daughter before she succumbed to cancer. Later, when Flight 10 reaches its half-way point across the Atlantic, suspicious text messages show up on the Marks’ secure phone by means of the aircraft’s WiFi.  Grimly, Marks realizes with mounting dread that his wily, anonymous adversary is undoubtedly a passenger aboard Flight 10. Basically, according to these messages, a person will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired to a specific bank account.  The big surprise is that the dough lands in Marks’ own bank account and his own people on the ground disown him. Eventually, chief pilot Captain David McMillan (Linus Roache of “Batman Begins”) insists that Marks surrender his badge and his automatic pistol.  Despite deep misgivings, our unhappy hero complies with the captain’s request, but this doesn’t discourage him from ferreting out the perpetrator with the help of some passengers,primarily frequent-flyer business woman, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore of “Carrie”) who looks pretty suspicious herself; a balded, NYPD cop (Corey Stroll of (“House of Cards”); former U.S. soldier Tom Bowen (Scoot McNairy of “Killing Them Softly”), and a kindly Arab, Dr. Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally of “Munich”).  Along the way, Marks discovers an attaché case packed with cocaine as well as a bomb.  By this time, Marks has been thoroughly incriminated as the hijacker thanks to a passenger who has caught some of our hero’s questionable actions on video and has somehow wired them to news agencies.  The situation grows even worse when Captain McMillan dies inexplicably from poisoning while he is flying the jetliner.  Nobody can enter the flight deck where the pilot and co-pilot stay, and this bit of skullduggery really gives Marks as well as the audience something to think about as the seconds to doom tick inexorably ahead.

“Non-Stop” doesn’t let up until the last minute when all hope seems to be lost not only for the passengers but also our hero.  Meantime, little else can be said about this exciting, nerve racking, nail-biter without divulging important plot points.  Interestingly enough, Oscar winning “12 Years A Slave” actress Lupita Nyong’o appears in a minor role as one of several flight attendants.  Altogether, Liam Neeson fans should be pleased with most of what occurs in “Non-Stop.”

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