This weekend might belong to the Oscars, but that doesn't mean that brand-new product can't also enter the multiplexes.
This week's biggest contestant for the box office gold, "Non-Stop," is a thriller set aboard a hijacked airplane... not exactly the kind of thing that's nominated for the prestigious Oscars (at least, not anymore -- keep in mind that "Airport" was nominated for Best Picture in 1971). Still, what it lacks in giant issues, social commentary, and emotional resonance, it more than makes up for with the fact that Liam Neeson screams at a bunch of people and tries to solve a truly dastardly murder/hijacking plot.
Neeson plays an alcoholic air marshal who, while on a transatlantic flight to London, starts receiving threatening text messages. It's up to Neeson to pinpoint who, exactly, is behind these texts (and all of the things that go along with the text messages) and for the audience to decide whether this air marshal has more to hide than he's letting on.
Is "Non-Stop" worth skipping your last-minute Oscar-nominated movie marathon? Or is this something worth skipping altogether? Read on to find out!
1. The Title Card Is Really Great
I made a note of this, because if a movie as seemingly perfunctory as "Non-Stop" can have time and creativity bestowed on its title sequence, then there's probably hope for the movie as a whole. As it turns out, the excellent title card (obscured, rain-dotted) was a good omen for the rest of the movie.
2. Liam Neeson Is at His Most Liam Neeson-y
Since 2008's surprise hit "Taken," Liam Neeson has almost exclusively been involved in movies where he has to save people (mostly family members) or uncover some deadly conspiracy. This is one of the latter films. You inherently feel for Neeson in a way that few action stars are able to elicit. This allows for him to do things like, say, break a guys neck in a coffin-like airplane bathroom. And not only do you believe that such a thing could occur (it's hard enough to wash your hands without making it look like you peed yourself, much less engage in mortal combat) but you root for him to do it. That's the Neeson way. And boy, let me tell you, he's indignant, he gets accused of stuff, he shoots people... This just has it all. It's Neeson at his most deliciously Liam Neeson-y. And that's a wonderful thing, indeed.
3. The Passengers Are Great
Since the movie forgoes the usual, boring opening credits routine, and because the advertising and marketing for the movie have revolved exclusively around Liam Neeson and his amazing scowl, when new characters are introduced, it comes as a complete (and welcome) surprise. The other passengers on the plane include, amongst others, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, and Corey Stoll. And the staff of the airplane is just as starry, with Linus Roache (who played Bruce Wayne's father in "Batman Begins") as the airplane's captain. (More on another member of the airplane's crew in a minute.) But while these characters sometimes don't have much to do, they give the movie some much-needed color and variety, and they all make for potential villains and comedic foils. Obvious standouts include McNairy, as a nebbish teacher and the always-wonderful Stoll, as an NYPD cop.
4. Julianne Moore Should Have Had More to Do
Of course, that doesn't mean that you don't hope and wish and pray a little bit that Julianne Moore, one of the more talented actresses of her generation and a frequent collaborator with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, had more to do. She plays a woman who sits next to Neeson on the plane, which makes her an obvious suspect, but she often comes across as so devoid of an interior life that there's no way she could be a villain. She has a few moments where her character shines but otherwise takes a backseat to the action, which is a shame because she is so, so good.
5. A Current Best Supporting Actress Nominee Has, Maybe, Five Lines
Lupita Nyong'o, who is nominated this year for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her heartbreaking work in "12 Years a Slave," costars as one of the plane's flight attendants. She looks as amazing as ever (those cheekbones!), but she maybe has five lines of dialogue in the entire movie. I had to look her character's name up on Wikipedia because her character is almost always addressed indirectly. (Her character's name is Gwen.) If someone had any idea the kind of star she would turn out to be, they probably would have beefed up her role. But there's a part of me that thinks, You really couldn't tell she was going to be huge?
6. You Can Tell What's Going On
The action in "Non-Stop" is always super clear, with spatial geography finely detailed and the layout of the airplane totally obvious. It's wonderful, in an age of the shaky cam and super-quick edits, to have the action luxuriated on, with long, sweeping shots that inform the viewer where everyone is. It's a wonderful change of pace.
7. Director Jaume Collet-Serra Is the Real Deal
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra made a splash with his remake of Vincent Price horror classic "House of Wax," mostly because the movie had Paris Hilton in a supporting role. (Something tells me the casting decision was not his.) While he showed an inventiveness to his staging of the action and an ability to build genuinely suspenseful set pieces, it wouldn't be until his second team-up with producer Joel Silver, "Orphan," that he would really make his mark. Smart and scary, it was one of the better horror movies of the past decade, and he quickly followed it up with another Silver joint, this time starring Neeson and taking place in the shifty world of European espionage, "Unknown." While that movie was ultimately too silly, it proved that Collet-Serra was still a vital, stylistically bold filmmaker unafraid to push things into far-out territory. "Non-Stop" continues this tradition. It's not as wacky as "Unknown," but it's just as accomplished, visually, and cements Collet-Serra as a genre filmmaker to look forward to.
8. The Villain's Motivation Is Icky
This might be considered SPOILER territory, but it might not (read at your own peril): when John McTiernan made "Die Hard," he said that he changed the original novel's terrorists into thieves because terrorists make people uncomfortable, but thieves are fun. This rule still applies. And "Non-Stop" wasn't taking notes. The bad guy or guys in "Non-Stop" not only aren't thieves, they also have an incredibly icky motivation connected to a very real world tragedy. It's just bad. And when the unidentified villain(s) deliver(s) a monologue about why he/she/they did what he/she/they did, you could feel the other audience members shift restlessly in their seats.
9. The Visual Dramatization of Text Messages Is Pretty Great
Whenever Neeson gets a text message, it pops up and hovers on the screen, kind of like "Sherlock" or the great Sundance comedy "Frank" (starring Michael Fassbender). It's really cool. And what's even better is when, after Neeson partially trashes his phone, the text messages, which include profanities, kind of skitter across the screen like a broken transmission, obscuring all the F-words that the baddies are using.
10. The Landing Is Bumpy
The ending of "Non-Stop" could have used some stabilization. In fact, things become so rough you half expect oxygen masks to descend from the ceiling of the movie theater. Thankfully, the fun of the first two acts does a lot to carry the movie through its choppy last act. You can't get all that mad at Neeson, like, ever.