Jaume Collet-Serra never winks. The reigning king of the cinema of the ludicrous, Collet-Serra plays every silly, over the top beat in his films completely deadpan, and it’s that commitment to earnest dumbness that makes his films so special. He had a stumble with Unknown, where Liam Neeson played a man who awakens from a coma having been replaced by an imposter, but House of Wax and Orphan are both schlock masterpieces, movies whose tongues are placed firmly - but utterly unseen - in cheek.
Non-Stop gets Collet-Serra back on target. Another high-concept action thriller, Non-Stop is a movie that in other hands would unravel and become the wrong kind of silly, but Collet-Serra keeps the pace propulsive enough and the silliness dry enough that the title becomes fairly literal. And while Unknown unraveled in its final act, Non-Stop - even having been spoiled in the trailers! - reaches a mad crescendo that’s broad even for Collet-Serra… and I loved it.
This time Liam Neeson is a broken, drunk US Air Marshal, tasked with anonymously riding planes in case something bad happens onboard. This time, on a transatlantic flight, something bad does happen - someone hacks into the Marshal text network and begins taunting Neeson that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is placed in a specific bank account. But that’s just the beginning; it quickly becomes clear that the bank account is in Neeson’s name, and the terrorist is, for some reason, trying to make the Air Marshal look like the bad guy. What follows is a tense, fun game of cat and mouse as Neeson tries to figure out which of the 150 passengers on this jet is the criminal mastermind (a supervillain, almost, judging by how tight this crazy plan is) before his reputation is ruined and everybody onboard dies.
It’s a locked room mystery done in an airplane cabin. Collet-Serra is a skilled enough filmmaker to make it work; about 98% of the movie takes place on this one plane, but Non-Stop is never visually dull. I’m sure he’s cheating like crazy - some of these spaces are way too big - but it doesn’t matter, because it’s all in service of making the movie work. He takes advantage of lighting and seating differences between first class and coach to reflect the mood of scenes, playing the tense, actiony stuff in coach while having Neeson brood and worry a lot in business. It’s smart, and it creates a look that breaks up potential visual monotony.
Collet-Serra also made great choices in casting. This is a schlock movie, a film that fifty years ago would have been a programmer on the bottom half of a double feature bill, but he’s cast it with strong actors who can bring the most to their limited scenes. They’re aided by the script, credited to John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle, which understands the 80s action movie concept of giving each of the supporting characters one defining trait. Every character has a thing, which is introduced quickly and left in the hands of actors like Corey Stoll, Nate Parker and Scoot McNairy - the sort of smart actors with unique looks who stand out whenever the camera pans to them.
All of those supporting characters play a vital role as Neeson must figure out who on the plane is the actual bad guy. Everybody’s a suspect, from Julianne Moore, Neeson’s overly-helpful seatmate, to Lupita Nyong’o, the stewardess who happens to be filling in for a girl who got suddenly sick before the flight. The script plays with each suspect, making them suspicious before eliminating them… and then making suspicious again. The movie knows that you’re trying to get one step ahead of it, and it keeps fucking with you. There were four or five times when I sighed and said, “Well it’s obviously so-and-so,” only to be proven wrong moments later. Will this work on repeat viewings? I don’t know, but it works like hell the first time through.
Everything works like hell; I was laughing with delighted disbelief every five or ten minutes as the film throws another complication onto the pile. There’s a corpse in the bathroom, there’s a suitcase full of coke, there’s a rash of poisonings, there’s tension between the passengers, there’s a bomb… it just keeps coming.
At the center of it all is Liam Neeson, playing yet another late-period Liam Neeson badass. Is this sort of work easy for him? Probably, but he does it so well. His eyes are haunted and his features hang in defeat as he is slowly roused from his bumbling alcoholic stupor into acting like a true action hero. Neeson does befuddled well, and that’s good because he spends a lot of the film in that state. He’s always two steps behind the terrorist, and yet you’re never irritated by that. He’s a strong, boozy center to the film.
But the true star is Collet-Serra. I walked into Non-Stop expecting to be bored and to be laughing at it for all the wrong reasons, but the director is too good. He has crafted an extraordinary piece of cheese, a movie that elicits laughs (with the film), gasps and even some spontaneous applause. Collet-Serra isn’t given his due because of the sorts of movies he makes, but there are few Hollywood directors as assured, as tonally smart and as fun as this guy. In an industry where too many filmmakers aim for middle-of-the-road forgettable nonsense, Jaume Collet-Serra achieves over-the-top, absolutely indelible nonsense.