Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop: Well-executed terror in the air

Non-Stop (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, intense suspense, mild profanity, fleeting sensuality and drug content

By Derrick Bang

This is a taut, tidy and thoroughly engrossing little thriller ... although it won’t do a thing for people already nervous about flying.

The resourceful Bill (Liam Neeson) thinks up several quite clever ways to expose the
identity of the indivisual who keeps sending threatening text messages ... but the
unknown tormentor/terrorist eludes our hero at every turn. Eventually, even Jen
(Julianne Moore) begins to wonder if the situation is beyond Bill's ability to solve.
John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle have concocted a twisty, danger-laden mystery that Agatha Christie would have admired: a whodunit and howzithappening that makes clever use of the claustrophobic setting and modern smart phone technology. Granted, the premise is preposterous, and interior details don’t withstand much scrutiny, but director Jaume Collet-Serra and editor Jim May move things quickly enough to obscure the logical lapses.

I also applaud the casting and sidebar character development, elements usually overlooked in lesser action thrillers. Although this is Liam Neeson’s show, and he commands the stage quite ably, we also get solid work from a dozen or so supporting players.

Neeson and Collet-Serra also worked together on 2011’s Unknown, although that initially suspenseful thriller was undone by its sloppy script. If the improved work here on Non-Stop reflects learning from that earlier mistake, then it’s nice to know all concerned paid attention.

The premise is simple: Veteran air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) boards a routine flight from New York City to London, and starts receiving cryptic text messages from some unknown sender who demands the transfer of $150 million into a numbered account ... or passengers on the flight will start to die, at 20-minute intervals. It’s immediately obvious, from what the sender knows, that s/he is on the plane.

Bill’s major issue is credibility: How can he possibly take such a crazy ultimatum seriously? And when evidence eventually suggest that this unknown terrorist truly has the means to carry out such threats, how can Bill get anybody to believe him?

Character back-story muddies the water, of course. Bill is a man under a cloud: an alcoholic carrying a heavy personal burden — details of which emerge slowly — and therefore a less than reliable judge of any given situation, in the eyes of his colleagues and superiors. Even his fellow on-flight air marshal, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), finds it difficult to accept Bill’s story at face value.

Bill does everything by the book; he immediately confides in the plane’s captain (Linus Roache) and veteran flight attendant, Nancy (Michelle Dockery). Keeping the situation concealed from the passengers is essential, but that becomes progressively more difficult, as Bill’s invisible cat-and-mouse tormentor escalates the stakes.

On top of which, we’ve been introduced to a planeload of potential suspects, each of whom looks increasingly shifty. Could it be Zack (Nate Parker), the pushy passenger who keeps getting in Bill’s way? Or Austin (Corey Stoll), the belligerent New York City cop? Or Gwen (Lupita Nyong’o), the rookie flight attendant? Or the condescending businessman, Charles (Frank Deal), or the contemptuous young guy (Corey Hawkins) hiding behind dark sunglasses?

Or maybe Tom (Scott McNairy), the friendly passenger who chatted Bill up, before the flight took off? Or Dr. Nasir (Omar Metwally), whose Muslim turban immediately arouses everybody’s suspicion?

On the other hand, it could be Jen (Julianne Moore), the perceptive and mildly flinty woman sitting next to Bill, who seems unusually attuned to his increasing anxiety.

A few of these faces are recognized immediately, starting with Nyong’o, a current Academy Award nominee for her superlative work in 12 Years aSlave. Her role here lacks that level of gravitas; Gwen does little beyond reacting to escalating events with wide-eyed agitation.

We know Dockery from TV’s Downton Abbey, and she deftly handles her character’s uncertainty: Nancy knows Bill, clearly has worked with him for awhile — as evidenced by a subtle gag when, before the merde hits the fan, she delivers a bottle of water instead of his requested cocktail — but soon can’t help wondering if her trust is misplaced.

The scripters are to be commended, in particular, for confronting the issue of Dr. Nasir’s heritage. Metwally handles this role skillfully, his sad eyes registering a decade’s worth of accusing stares, as he accurately intuits his increasingly precarious position among the rest of his fellow passengers. Bill, on the other hand, doesn’t succumb to knee-jerk prejudicial unease for a second; he treats Nasir solely as a doctor. It’s a real-world lesson, administered mildly, and one of the film’s best touches.

Moore is granted the most complex supporting role, and she positively sparkles, just as she did during her scene-stealing third-act appearance in last year’s Don Jon. Moore makes Jen intriguing even when she’s silent, her discerning gaze and sidelong glances speaking volumes. Jen’s tart-tongued conversations with Bill also add mild (and very welcome) comic relief to these proceedings. That’s also savvy scripting; Collet-Serra understands the wisdom of granting us viewers the false relief of snarky interludes between each crisis, which therefore winds us up even further.

On top of which, we can’t help suspecting Jen because she gets so much screen time ... and Moore quite mischievously amplifies such doubts. Why is she always on hand when something bad happens?

As he has demonstrated in Unknown and both Taken entries, Neeson excels at characters who push past their doubts, charging ahead with impulsive — if ill-advised — plans, and to hell with anybody who gets in his way. Trouble is, this story’s airplane is an extremely confined setting, and as various passengers become aware of Bill’s progressively frantic behavior, they can’t help wondering if this so-called air marshal can — or should — be taken at face value, or if in fact he’s the terrorist he claims to be seeking.

In which case, how best to “handle” him?

Collet-Serra and his scripters keep us guessing, and they deserve credit for orchestrating inventive bits of mayhem, while putting their poor hero into an ever-tighter, reputation- and credibility-damaging box. Indeed, we can’t help wondering, after awhile, if perhaps this is less a “real” depiction of events, and more a psychological head-game along the lines of 2003’s Identity, thereby making Bill this narrative’s least reliable witness.

Production designer Alexander Hammond and special effects supervisor Jeff Brink also deserve considerable praise, for concocting an edge-of-the-seat climax. I wouldn’t dare reveal any details here, but let’s just say that Hammond and Brink apparently wanted to one-up the upside-down maneuvering that was orchestrated for 2012’s Flight.

And that the laws of physics, particularly with respect to mass and momentum, are a bitch.

Non-Stop doesn’t stand up to analysis during the drive home, which will be peppered with questions that start with the phrase “But what about...?” Even so, it’s a thought-provoking and exciting 106 minutes while the lights are out, and a great way to spend an evening at the movies. We need more well-mounted thrillers just like it.

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