It took a dozen years, but someone has finally made an honest run at a post-9/11 hijacking movie, in the form of "Non-Stop," Liam Neeson's latest thriller in which he is both cat and mouse. An air marshal with a fear of flying, he finds himself at some personal low point, steeling himself with booze for a transatlantic flight. High over water, he gets a text from an apparent hostage-taker who promises to kill a person on the flight every 20 minutes until he gets $150 million in ransom. As the minutes tick by, Neeson realizes he's being set up to take the fall for whatever happens onboard.
At least since calls have been coming from inside the house, thrillers have made phones a creepy connector in claustrophobic quarters. (The texts are coming from inside the plane!) "Non-Stop" puts the scorpions in the jar and then shakes it with a plane full of innocents. It could stand to be a good sight grittier, and somewhat smarter. But, sure, if what you want to see is Liam Neeson ferreting out a terror plot from 30,000 feet, "Non-Stop," why not.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Unknown," "Orphan") lays out the non-Neeson cast as an eclectic lineup of nobodies who instantly become suspects as the texts arrive. In this, at least, "Non-Stop" does what it means to, inviting us into the headspace of its protagonist, and meting out clues in pleasant doses. We get just enough information to know not to trust the bald passenger, the obviously Muslim passenger, the obnoxious hot woman, the crew. This movie's not so smart, you think. It won't pull one over on me. Well, it probably will. And it's all right, because in its big reveal, "Non-Stop" shows that it could use a lesson in motive. Still, as with anyone who has stared at two closed fists wiggling alluringly, guessing is fun.
Neeson has settled into his autumn years with a convincing weariness. (Not that an actor has to do quite as much once a film opens with him heavily spiking his coffee and then stirring it with a toothbrush.) Here as the air marshal he cuts a trustworthy old drunk whose periphery is always milky. When he gets seated next to a harried Julianne Moore (suspect!) his attempts at conversation remind us why he's cast so often as an ex-cop rather than as, say, a widower on the prowl. Neeson used to box, and has one of those smiles, when he holds it in place, that resemble a car door after a moderate T-boning.
Neeson has made a late career playing flawed protectors, men who because of past baggage leave their charges vulnerable to evildoers. It's not quite so dark as a genuine antihero, because it is after all the nature of a hero to have to battle his own ingrained defects as he tries to help others. But it does work well as a leading man ages. Without a hint of sarcasm or even particular wit, Neeson plods along, almost canine, in his effort to thwart the bad guys, knowing he makes a hulking target, a big man inside the plane's cabin, threatening some madman on the other end of the line. We recognize this brute, and we know he'll stop at nothing to save his daughter or the random schmo in seat 25C. If only we could so trust his instincts in choosing movies.