"Suspension of disbelief." Critics like to throw that phrase around, and to me, it means the ease that a movie lets you inside. Sometimes you can watch a film and the doors open wide and you're right there along with the characters. Other times, you watch with clinical detachment as the events of the movie unfold, and while you can be emotionally moved by the proceedings, you feel that separation. And then there is NON-STOP, which you can only watch in amusement as it stumbles around on the floor, trying to get its footing, much like watching your dog get stoned. It's funny for a bit, and then you feel pretty embarrassed by the whole thing.
NON-STOP isn't unwatchably bad. It's actually quite entertaining at times, especially once the plot stacks one unlikely scenario on top of another and we watch Liam Neeson's air marshal Bill navigate each increasingly ridiculous situation. A lot of the fun of NON-STOP is trying to figure out just how silly the movie will get. Does it make for a rewarding movie experience? Not exactly, but it's not boring.
Movies like this are made or broken by their script, and a smart movie could have been made from the premise, but there's never a moment when the screenwriters (by John Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle) choose the subtler, more intelligent path. There's a lot of painful exposition that goes over like a fart in church, some from Neeson himself. It's unfortunate, because as films like THE GREY (and yes, even TAKEN) show, the man can find the center of a conflicted and troubled character and he can bring the audience along for the ride easily, if given a great role to do it with.
Neeson has a physical presence, and even at his advancing age, we can still believe the man can clear a room if he wants to. When he's allowed to be subtle, Neeson can act with the best of them (and Tom Hanks be damned, Neeson should have won the Oscar that year). But when a script like this asks him to bear the weight of the unbelievable plot and deliver lines like when Bill threatens one of the passengers on the plane, a police officer, with, "We're cops. You know what I can do," you can either roll with it or laugh at it. Unfortunately, I couldn't roll with it, so NON-STOP has a lot of unfortunate laughter.
Bill Marks (Neeson) is a troubled alcoholic and former police officer who seems to have stumbled into a job as an air marshal on international flights. On this particular flight to London, full of many recognizable actors like Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, and even Academy Award nominated Lupita Nyong'o as a stewardess who barely has a line or three, Neeson is contacted on his cell by a mysterious passenger who wants $150 million wired to an account or one passenger will die every 20 minutes. Turns out that account number is Bill's, and Bill himself seems to be the instrument of this particular terrorist's plans. As events escalate, it becomes clear that Bill may not be equipped to handle the situation, especially since it seems to be the opinion of Bill's superiors that he's actually the one plotting to destroy the plane.
As more pieces of the plot fall, director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the movie playful, even as it gets more absurd. From another air marshal who may be on the take, to a bomb on the plane (covered in cocaine no less), suspension of disbelief becomes more difficult as NON-STOP goes on. It's a rare movie that can walk the middle ground between realism and the preposterous, but it certainly doesn't help that Collet-Serra has everyone play everything over-the-top. At times, I was waiting for Leslie Nielsen to show up and tell Neeson, "Good luck. We're all counting on you." I would have welcomed it, because at times I wasn't sure if NON-STOP was being serious or being a spoof. More skilled directors can walk that tightrope, but Collet-Serra isn't one of them.
We suspect everyone, of course, and the film has a lot of fun playing with audience expectations. I might have been able to enjoy that if I hadn't pegged the bad guy mere seconds into their screen appearance. And, when everything is finally revealed, the villain's motives are so outrageously nonsensical (and, to be honest, borderline offensive) that, again, I had to laugh at the audacity of it. If there's truly a fine line between stupid and clever, NON-STOP spends far more of its time on the stupid side. I look forward to the day when Liam Neeson is given that meaty script again, like THE GREY or, hopefully, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES later this year. I'm not quite sure what Neeson sees in Jaume Collet-Serra as a director. Certainly Collet-Serra makes him look good. I just wish he gave him a great character to work with instead of a punchline. NON-STOP is nonsense.