All's right with the world on this late day in February. Liam Neeson, also known as Mr. Capable or Uncle Avuncular, is back headlining another entertainingly preposterous thriller, this one called "Non-Stop," directed by his "Unknown" collaborator, director Jaume Collet-Serra.
I can take or leave the "Taken" movies, which are so very, very profitable around the world, but thanks to films such as "Unknown," "The Grey" and now "Non-Stop," Neeson in the bleak midwinter has become as much of a tradition as Groundhog Day. When the new year refuses to inch out of the deep freeze, there's nothing like the warm, reassuring sound of Neeson's voice. Or the warm, reassuring sight of Neeson besting a bad guy or a bad wolf.
"Non-Stop" confines its action almost entirely to the inside of a trans-Atlantic New York-to-London flight. A fast, efficient introduction lays the groundwork: Federal air marshal Bill Marks, the Neeson character, is a nervous flier, an alcoholic ex-cop who looks as though he's carrying around a suitcase of unresolved issues. His seatmate, played by the overqualified Julianne Moore, sees in Bill a man in need of some comfort and conversation. But is she hiding something? Director Collet-Serra's cutaway shots appear to indicate as much.
But this is a whodunit, or the present-tense variation on the whodunit, the who'sdoingit. Marks receives a text midflight from someone demanding $150 million in wired funds, or else the terrorist will begin killing one passenger per 20 minutes. Ticking clock! Who's going to look after the sweet, scared little preteen girl who's flying alone for the first time? And why does every actor with a speaking role in "Non-Stop" appear to be a shifty-eyed potential killer?
Because it's a requirement of the genre, that's why. The "Non-Stop" script, credited to John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, creates a hint of a past romance for Marks and one of the flight attendants (Michelle Dockery of "Downton Abbey"). Another flight attendant, a late crew addition played by Lupita Nyong'o of "12 Years a Slave," darts in and out of the action, just enough to create more free-floating suspicion. And there are a dozen more just like her, red herrings (or are they?) designed to keep the fishing expedition worth our time.
Train travel's really my thing, especially cinematically, but ever since Agatha Christie killed someone off with an apparent bee sting in her 1935 novel "Death in the Air" (also known as "Death in the Clouds"), writers and directors have been eager to re-book flights to the local movie screen. Recently, director Wes Craven worked creative variations on claustrophobic thrills in "Red Eye"; "Flightplan," less successfully, embarked on guessing games aboard a jumbo jetliner in peril.
"Non-Stop" goes crazy near the end, of course. Neeson's air marshal, as we see in the trailers, at one point grabs a floating gun in slow motion and fires it at … who? Can't say. I can say that Neeson has a wonderful knack for the simple, grounded line reading and carefully delineated streaks of anger and doubt. Director Collet-Serra embraces the premise without treating it as a joke. The revelation of who'sdoingit, and why, is accompanied by a pretty lumpy lump of exposition. But soon enough then there's a plane to land, and that part is ridiculous but exciting.
The movie's fun. And now, thanks to our annual Neeson thriller, spring can come soon.
"Non-Stop" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sexuality and drug references)
Running time: 1:47