Planes can be excellent places for thrillers, even though they’re statistically still the safest way to travel. There have been many memorable films made around planes/people in planes in jeopardy, from Fearless, to Airport, to Executive Decision to the classic Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Of course, since 9/11 such matters now carry an ominous new meaning and undertone. Non-Stop is an OK little thriller that, while it isn’t exactly a new classic, deserves points for how it does deal with that elephant in the room.
Federal Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is on another routine flight from Nova Scotia to London. He then receives texts on his secure line from someone on the plane. They threaten to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless they’re paid $150 million. It soon looks like the threat is real. But even as Bill begins to investigate, it seems they are one step ahead. The TSA finds out that the account the ransom is to be paid into is in Bill’s name, making him the main suspect…
Now there’s a lot that’s a bit implausible about this film, not least the villain plot line. Most of it makes sense by the end, but there’s some stuff early on that does strain credibility. In fact there’s one pretty major moment when you wonder ‘wait, did they plan for that to happen? How could they be so certain that would happen?’. It could be that what happens was a fortunate coincidence for the villain and they just decided to roll with it… which simply begs the question of what exactly was ‘plan A’? However, later on as things become clear, while some of the details of the scheme remain vague (like how they set up everything that happened before getting on board), a lot of the plan is fairly solid. In fact, it should be applauded for doing that comparatively rare thing of modern thrillers: having the identity of the bad guy be a genuine surprise, without it being a cheat ending.
Also, the villain’s motivations are interesting and add a bit to the story. The spectre of post-9/11 security and paranoia are all over this, and the reasons for what’s going on are entirely tied up in that paranoia. The idea that while you fly, there is allowed to be among you someone with a gun in secret is a bit unnerving, and it raises the question of is it genuinely making you safer. Also, early on the film introduces a Muslim character (Omar Metwally), but it becomes clear quickly that not only is he not the villain, but the filmmakers are smart enough to not even make him a red herring. Indeed, he actually turns out to be a big help to Agent Marks as a doctor, and one of the more memorable characters. Well done Non-Stop for that touch.
Speaking of characters, the really surprising thing about Non-Stop is that, although in many ways it’s a completely silly cliché storm, it actually gets a bit better as it goes along. At first it looks like another morally iffy Liam Neeson-scowling-his-way-
None of the above points are to say this film is anything truly ground-breaking, it’s still a decidedly boilerplate thriller, but it does have more than enough smart touches to make it worthwhile. The mystery presented is genuinely involving, with a lot of turns that rely on good storytelling, not just pulling things out of nowhere like a few thrillers do. Neeson is still a good commanding presence and the rest of the cast, especially Julianne Moore, support things very well. It’s not one to change your life, there are a lot of things you’ll have probably seen before, and more than a few ‘wait, how did they do that again?’ moments by the end, but it’s worth a view. It’s no Air Force One, but it’s no Airport ’79 The Concorde either.