Although it fits quite obviously into that broad, vague category of the cinematic thriller, the new movie "Non-Stop" actually contains an unusual combination of elements. It takes place almost entirely inside an airplane flying across the Atlantic from New York to London, establishing a setting and situation naturally fraught with a certain tension, even before the action reveals the presence of a killer and a bomb on board. That tightly controlled enclosure provides other threads of action and meaning that demonstrate additional possibilities in a location perhaps all too familiar in both film and life.
Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, an ex-cop, now a federal air marshal assigned to the flight, along with a colleague, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), apparently a routine pairing of the two. Marks starts his assignment with a shot of booze in his coffee, providing the first hint of an alcoholism that influences much of the ensuing action. On board he confesses his dislike of flying, an odd problem considering his profession, to his seatmate, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), who helps him through the takeoff, initiating a relationship that develops in several unexpected directions throughout the flight.
The film's central problem arises when Marks receives a text message on his supposedly secure phone, informing him that someone on the flight will die in 20 minutes, and others 20 minutes after that, a promise that the sender fulfills right on schedule. The sender, who texts Marks throughout the film, demands $150 million to be placed in a special account, threatening more killings if he doesn't get the money. When Marks communicates the threat to his supervisor in Washington, the boss, like so many of his ilk, refuses to support the agent, and then later betrays him.
As the tension progresses and the killer continues to carry out his threats, Marks's quest for his antagonist grows increasingly desperate. Frantic and puzzled, he begins to suspect everybody, from the flight attendants to the co-pilot, implying a paranoia that perfectly suits both the situation in the airplane and his own personal history, involving a tragedy in his past. On their seat televisions the passengers see the news stories about their plight, all of which, thanks to his supervisor, accuse Marks of hijacking the plane.
With all its shocks and twists, its ingenious notion of a pursuit within the claustrophobic confines of an airplane and the necessarily heightened emotion of danger at 35,000 feet and 500 miles an hour, the movie sustains a terrific level of tension. Once it establishes the basic situation, it never allows the suspense to diminish, then complicates it with several back stories and the reactions of various passengers.
Aside from the frequent episodes of quite brutal violence, when Marks struggles with several different passengers who question his authority and his methods, the film actually resembles a classic detective story. Its enclosed, isolated setting resembles those snowbound hotels or grand country houses where a clever sleuth searches for a murderer among a limited cast of suspects; in fact, both Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr wrote novels about a murder on an airplane. Like any fictional detective, in "Non-Stop" Bill Marks sorts through a number of possible culprits, deals with false clues, follows red herrings, and ultimately solves a couple of murders through the same cerebral methods as the investigators of those novels, a HerculePoirot or Henry Merrivale. He even discovers that the murderer employs the same modus operandi as the villains in those classic novels.
Following Neeson's starring roles in the two very successful "Taken" movies (apparently another is in the works), the media commentators suggest he is now another action hero, lumping him in the same category as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or Vin Diesel. As a number of his performances suggest, however, Neeson possesses a great deal more versatility and depth than that crew of muscular mesomorphs. A big man with a powerful screen presence, he recalls a great star like Burt Lancaster, a strong man with a strong man's gentleness, a strong man's dignity, even a strong man's vulnerability. His craggy features are marked by pain and confusion, his strength tempered by a measure of melancholy.