Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new Liam Neeson potboiler is headed for theaters, so we’re singling out the best movies of the star’s aging ass-kicker renaissance (excepting The Grey, which we’ve already covered for a past Watch This series).
Jaume Collet-Serra’s contributions to Liam Neeson’s post-Taken cycle of boozy Catholic-guilt thrillers (a.k.a. the Neesoniad) are destined to be studied by future Neesonologists not only for their awesome entertainment value but for the way they have turned the actor’s predilection for self-parody into a paranoid-allegorical subgenre that usually involves him playing Hitchcockian chump to an insane conspiracy. Among these films, Non-Stop comes closest to achieving smart-dumb perfection, casting Neeson (who’s in top form in terms of both speaking volume and self-flagellation) as an alcoholic air marshal who is taunted via text by a mastermind who’s committing various Clue-style murders on his London-to-New-York flight.
This already delirious locked-room mystery premise is imparted with certain dreamlike qualities by the fact that Non-Stop appears to be set inside the world’s largest airplane, which is crisscrossed by the camera in interesting ways. Factor in an assortment of random overqualified actors (including Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Scoot McNairy, and Corey Stoll) and a rapidly escalating plot that involves blackmail, blow darts, terrorism, and a briefcase of cocaine, and what you end up with is the sort of irrational anxiety dream one might have after falling asleep to a Liam Neeson movie on a flight. In this context, it’s worth mentioning that the climax includes a ludicrous moment of nosedive-induced weightlessness.
Yet Non-Stop isn’t some kind of psychotronic B-movie howler. Collet-Serra has clear opinions about basic democratic values and post-9/11 security theater, and the movie’s politics are about the closest thing it has to airtight story logic. (The same is true of Collet-Serra’s subsequent Neeson collaboration, The Commuter, a similarly literal vehicle that’s kind of about the subprime mortgage crisis.) It helps that Collet-Serra is as committed to directing the film as Neeson is to acting in it. Taken may have turned him into a one-man action-thriller archetype, but it is Neeson’s insistence on playing fuck-ups that has made the Neesoniad into our preeminent star text: a veritable tragic saga of the multiplex in which protagonists with similar backstories and insta-forgettable names (he’s “Bill Marks” in this one) blur into a single Neeson figure, the divorced-ex-cop-widower-father-drunk.
In Non-Stop, this character is semi-incompetent, and it least part of the fun is watching him get put through the wringer by Collet-Sera’s wackadoodle pursuits—namely, his collage-like Hitchcockiana, love of twists, and apparent fondness for using cellphones as plot devices. There’s even a point where Marks owns up to his failures in front of the passengers with earth-shattering, genuinely moving conviction. If Neeson is our ideal of a movie-star authority stand-in, then this is who we really are: passengers on a nonsensical flight-slash-dinner-game from hell, protected by the loudest and most inebriated man with a gun.