So sayeth Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about suspense. The legendary filmmaker didn’t come by this insight overnight, of course - look at Hitch’s early films and you’ll see an abundance of shootouts and chase scenes. But by the time he came to Hollywood, Hitchcock figured out the key element that would define his films and career: action is nothing more than a release of tension.
I’m not quite sure where our movie culture became so action-oriented (I guess Star Wars is mostly to blame), but when even Titanic can make time for a shootout on board while the ship is sinking, something has gone horribly wrong. Now, don’t get me wrong - there’s little out there that gets my juices flowing like a good action movie. But the problem nowadays is what passes for cinematic action. Our filmmakers today seem to have forgotten the very fundamentals of the action scene and its true purpose, resulting in a lot of half-baked story ideas carried by set-pieces of special effects and visual nonsense hung together by little more than sound and fury. In other words, a bunch of filmmakers who think all you need to do ramp up the excitement for a film scene is shake the camera and cut the footage up into staccato-esque, nanosecond-long edits… and that’s before you take into account the lack of a decent script that breaks the action scenes down into basic character motivations and objectives and how those two elements move the plot ever forward. The truth of the matter is that there are maybe a handful of working directors today who can do action (on both a sheer technical and basic story level) well.
Which brings us to Non-Stop, the latest showcase of badassery for the current reigning B-action movie (that still gets a wide theatrical release) star Liam Neeson. The set-up is a plot that would make Hitchcock proud: Neeson plays a drunk, broken Federal Air Marshall who, during a seemingly uneventful flight, starts getting mysterious text messages from someone on board threatening to kill a passenger every twenty minutes until $150 million is deposited into an undisclosed bank account. Once it’s discovered that the account is in Neeson’s character’s name, the film goes all North by Northwest/The Wrong Man as we discover that the villain’s plot may not be entirely about money so much as the complete ruination of our main hero.
One thing you have to understand going into this film is that the set-up, by its very nature, is ridiculous. There is no way to hold onto any hint of plausibility or realism with a plot like this, and no explanation the film provides for who is behind the murders on board will adhere to any kind of logic. The good thing is that the filmmakers seem to realize this as well, and don’t care about making it anything other than what it is: namely, a locked-room mystery. Even better, it actually delivers on the “mystery” part, setting up several characters with enough suspicion and possible motivations that any one of them could be the mastermind behind it all. The filmmakers also have the good sense to cast reliable players like Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyongo’o and a host of others to fill in the roles, resulting in a natural conclusion that thankfully isn’t bleedingly obvious from the first frame, and more importantly, doesn’t feel forced into a “twist” ending existing solely to pull the rug out from the audience for cheap shock value. Non-Stop sets up the rules of its own world, and continues to play by them for the rest of its runtime, ridiculous though they may be.
The problem is that the film stars Liam Neeson, and thus carries certain expectations. That’s not a knock on Neeson himself, mind: the actor looks more than a little bored throughout, and at this point could do these types of roles in his sleep, but still shoulders the burden of carrying movie rather admirably. But in a post-Taken world, Neeson has become the go-to badass, and thus can’t go the length of a film without killing multiple assailants in various brutal, clever ways. To his credit, director Jaume Collet-Serra does keep the film fairly light on action, and what fisticuffs and scuffles do breakout are usually kept short and to-the-point. But it still goes back to Hitchcock’s rule from above: action deflates whatever tension is built up throughout the rest of the film, feeling like Collet-Serra is shooting himself in the foot at times; breaking up the fine tension he builds elsewhere. It’s not enough to derail the whole affair, but a tighter leash on the action would have resulted in a far more tense movie than the end result.
All in all, Non-Stop is a film that is refreshing (in not a little misguided) in its straightforward approach to its locked-room mystery scenario, but I’m afraid will prove to really only work on the first viewing.