Liam Neeson is punching people again. Yet, all appearances to the contrary, Non-Stop is not an attempt to clone Taken, the film that turned Neeson punching people into an annual reason for male baby boomers to leave the couch. That movie was a gleeful, nonstop kill fest; this one, despite its name, is a far more restrained film, an old-fashioned suspense thriller. When the punches arrive, they matter.
Non-Stop's tight efficiency is a surprise, given that Neeson's last team-up with director Jaume Collet-Serra was the soporific "thriller" Unknown (2011). Perhaps claustrophobia does good things for this filmmaker. Set almost entirely inside an airliner on a trans-Atlantic flight, Non-Stop uses enclosure to jack up the tension, keeping the audience guessing about who's going to deserve a punch next.
Neeson plays Bill Marks, whom we first spy swigging a preflight whiskey, the shallow focus bringing us into his hungover tunnel vision. The on-the-ground scenes hint at Marks' reason for flying. But not until he starts receiving threatening texts in midair does the script confirm that this loser who's been sneaking smokes in the can is the air marshal.
Marks' initial anonymity is a clever way to set up the film's conflict, which hinges on his awareness that the texting terrorist could be anyone on the plane, from the captain to the helpful flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) to his fussy seatmate (Julianne Moore). The culprit promises that a passenger will die if he or she doesn't receive $150 million in 20 minutes. But if Marks calls out the wrong person at the wrong time, he himself could be the one who ignites close-quarters violence. "How many people are you going to kill?" the texter asks him, in a neat little meta allusion to Neeson's rep.
The film gives about 45 minutes to this silent duel between our hero and a villain who manifests only as text bubbles popping up on the screen — and, amazingly, it works. It takes a believably weathered and weary actor like Neeson to pull off this one-sided conflict. His reactions carry the drama as Marks slowly realizes that the hijacker is trying to frame him for the crime.
He's well assisted by the character players in the cast — including Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy and Anson Mount — who all manifest convincing degrees of shadiness. Paranoia mounts in the viewer, too, as Collet-Serra uses a long tracking shot from the cabin to the cockpit and back to emphasize their confinement.
Because this is still a B-movie, three things are virtually inevitable: 1. Havoc will be wreaked; 2. Marks will redeem himself and 3. the villain's reveal will cause eye-rolls. Having created an invisible antagonist so insidious that he or she almost seems to inhabit the protagonist's head, the writers (John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle) are headed for a crash when they finally have to pit those parties against each other in a physical showdown.
All these things come to pass in the final half hour, when Non-Stop succumbs to action-movie formula. Punches are thrown, fighter jets are deployed, heartfelt Psychology 101 confessions are made and there's even a teddy-bear-clutching little girl for Marks to see safely to the ground. (Aww.)
In its best moments, though, Non-Stop draws genuine tension from the scenario of strangers forced into proximity, each vulnerable to the risks of flight and simultaneously endowed with the power of instant, silent communication implied by a smartphone. Death still arrives in this movie by punch — and other, more colorful means. But it's technology that's truly creepy.