For a trillion people — in markets major, ancillary, and very possibly interplanetary — the equation is simple: big, doleful Hibernian Liam Neeson + big gun = excellent mayhem. His new thriller, Non-Stop, is a hijack picture with a mystery villain: Someone onboard keeps texting Air Marshal Neeson a threat: A person will die every 20 minutes if $150 million is not deposited into a numbered account. Oddly, when Neeson starts making noises to the pilots and his on-the-phone superior (Shea Whigham), everyone thinks he’s the hijacker. And who knows? He might be. He’s unstable enough. He’s a boozer. Maybe he’s texting himself the way Edward Norton kept beating himself up in Fight Club. The movie has so many red herrings, it’s amazing the theater doesn’t smell like a fish store.
Jittery Julianne Moore wants a window seat and trades with computer programmer Nate Parker — which puts her next to Neeson, but not so close that when she’s turned away she couldn’t be texting. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) lingers on Moore as she flashes Neeson significant looks, so suddenly you’re thinking, It’s her. She’s the one!
Then: No, hold on, they just want us to think she’s the one. She looks at him like that because she’s thinking he’s the one.
But then Collet-Serra lingers on another passenger, and it all begins again: It’s him! It’s definitely him! It’s one of the pilots. It’s Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as a flight attendant. It’s Lupita N’yongo as another flight attendant. (Wait — Lupita N’yongo? With, like, no lines? Talk about indentured servitude …) It’s House of Cards’s Corey Stoll as a belligerent New York cop … at least he says he’s a New York cop. It’s Scoot McNairy as a guy who told Neeson outside the airport he was going to Amsterdam, not London. Could it be the scared little girl who dropped her bear getting on the plane? Collet-Serra, after all, directed Orphan.
Did you ever see that terrible but fun ‘70s picture Skyjacked with Charlton Heston? Someone wrote in lipstick on the mirror that there was a bomb onboard and if the plane didn’t go to Moscow, to Moscow, to Moscow, it would blow. That’s the last whodunit in the air I can remember, and the identity of the hijacker was pretty obvious. This one doesn’t have as many laughs, but it’s much better. There are all sorts of tightly packed frames and jangly close-ups and that omnipresent hum of engines and a pressurized cabin to make you claustrophobic. The fights when they come are head-rocking. True, there are some Skyjacked-worthy speeches. But Neeson is such an eloquent hunk of Irish melancholy that he gives everything he does — snapping a neck or taking a drink of water — a classical gravitas.
The question hangs: Do we have enough information to play detective and figure out who’s guilty? Or will the hijacker-killer be an arbitrary suspect who pops up in the climax and says, “It’s me, heh-heh …” The answer to that question is … I’m not saying. The key to a good B-mystery is that all the actors should be a little stilted. You should never know the difference between an actor acting badly and an actor doing a masterful acting job of someone acting badly. In Non-Stop, there is much excellent bad acting.