At 61, Liam Neeson has become such a force at the box office that only an off-brand Jesus dares to mess with him. The only wide release facing the aging actor’s latest actioner Non-Stop this weekend is Son of God—which, I was stunned to learn, has actually been pieced together from the History Channel’s Bible miniseries, incorporating some new footage into a tedious-looking retelling of Christ’s life. Neeson’s resurrection may not be quite that impressive, but it’s certainly unusual to see an actor go from serious biopic mainstay and old-man-mentor roles to all-out action hero—and that’s exactly what happened when Neeson’s Taken finally got a US release in 2009.
The Taken movies (two have been made; a third is promised) are the staples of the Neeson action diet, but his thrillers made with Jaume Collet-Serra, of which there are also two with a third in the works, actually make better use of his gravitas. Unknown and now Non-Stop are both more Hitchcockian than Besson-esque; in Unknown, Neeson awakens from a car accident to find that his identity has been erased, while Non-Stop places his air marshal Bill Marks on a plane, receiving anonymous texts informing him that one passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless he delivers $150 million to a particular bank account.
Bill Marks has a clichéd world-weariness (cue the cigarettes and alcohol), but Collett-Serra at least conveys it visually rather than verbally by keeping his camera close on a groggy Neeson as he makes his way through JFK airport. This first section of the film, with relatively sparse dialogue, sets up Neeson’s worn-down marshal and the various passengers who will figure into his harrowing flight with neat efficiency. Once the action moves to the flight, the film doesn’t always juggle the passenger ensemble—which includes Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, and Michelle Dockery—with enough finesse. Most of the actors get at least one or two good moments in between intentionally suspicious passages of silence; Moore’s part is mostly thankless, for example, but at least her irritation at Neeson calling her “ma’am” harking back to her “you fucking call me lady” meltdown from Magnolia.
Moreover, the movie has welcome elements of a locked-room mystery and, like Unknown, doles out Neeson’s now-trademark ass-kicking in limited batches, like a tight-quarters restroom brawl. Collett-Serra is better at snaking his camera through the airplane’s aisles than staging action setpieces anyway, and much of the movie depends on Neeson’s conviction and mounting frustration. The screws tighten, then loosen in the final stretch; the climax doesn’t cheat (so far as I could recall), but it does lurch into both verbal and literal pyrotechnics. Neeson gets an awkward but forcefully acted monologue about his backstory, and though it doesn’t work particularly well in the movie, it also feels surprisingly genuine for such a silly movie.
Not to get ickily personal about the actor’s offscreen life, but there’s a palpable if sometimes clumsily expressed sense of pain and loss in his action-movie roles. I have no idea, of course, if he thinks of Natasha Richardson (his wife, who died from a skiing injury in 2009) when portraying various men who have had parts of their lives figuratively or literally taken away from them; he’s said to have taken so many jobs in recent years in part to keep his mind occupied. Regardless, Neeson injects thriller shlock with real intensity—like Nicolas Cage at his best, before those almost-direct-to-DVD thrillers got the best of him. “You’re very good at wasting time,” the villain texts to Neeson at one point. So is Non-Stop, the title of which hints at Neeson’s dogged work ethic. The next Collett-Serra/Neeson collaboration is called, appropriately enough, Run All Night.