Whatever it takes

Going to the movies is always an act of expectations. Perhaps the trailer teased. Or an ad in a newspaper seemed interesting.

Some might immediately discount the film if the words "action thriller" appear anywhere in the copy. So if action movies (call them B-movies or pulp cinema) have little if any appeal, then you will likely skip "Non-Stop."

It's a niche movie directed at that audience that enjoys a kind of narrative rush that only a certain type of film can deliver. And when done well, it can create serious tension and be a satisfying piece of entertainment.

But know that the fulcrum of the action movie is mostly external, meaning there is little character backstory, and the source of conflict is generally situational in the sense that a crisis (usually life-threatening) must be confronted and solved. This almost always involves physical action of some sort. The caveat with such films is that they do not have to meet a high standard of plausibility. The audience is more than willing to suspend its disbelief in order to take the ride. Wherever it may lead.

Regarding "Non-Stop," start with the title. It could refer to the fact that some 150 folks have boarded a transatlantic flight out of New York City, bound for London. No layovers. Or it could refer to the soon-revealed circumstances that once set in motion are ratcheted up, the tension sustained and unrelenting.

On board this flight is air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a man who begins his pre-flight prep with a shot of whisky in his coffee, followed by a white-knuckle takeoff (he hates to fly). Clearly, he is a flawed man who is struggling with demons.

Once airborne and the passengers are settling in for what will be a long red-eye, Marks receives a text on his secure TSA cell phone, the message demanding $150 million or a passenger will die every 20 minutes. Let the games begin. For openers, how do you kill someone on a plane and not give yourself away?

And so, not only is the game clock ticking, but the question of serious concern to Marks is, who could be sending the text? Everyone on board is suddenly a suspect. In other words, the construction of the movie is a whodunit or who is doing it that slowly evolves into a film not too dissimilar from the post-9/11 movie "Flight 93," with a touch of "Panic Room" starring Jodie Foster and not to forget the Denzel Washington vehicle, "Flight."

What ads to the potency is that "Non-Stop" is a container film, meaning everything that takes place occurs within a very small space (the confines of a jumbo jet) and at 40,000 feet. There is a fight to the death in one of the plane's toilets that is in part brutal because of the small space within which it occurs.

Does the film work? Indeed. It's gripping from beginning to end and possesses a fine supporting cast to include Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery (of "Downton Abbey") and not to forget Lupita Nyongo'o of "12 Years a Slave."

Tangentially, the movie is one more installment for Neeson on what might be considered a late-career revival. He's become, surprisingly, a weathered, believable action hero who is blessed with more than a modicum of intelligence and, as he says to a kidnapper, in the 2008 hugely successful film, "Taken" (if you've not screened it and enjoy the genre, it's a must see), "I have a certain set of skills which you don't want to learn about." That would be life lessons developed as a career CIA agent (in "Non-Stop," he was a New York detective now with the TSA). The life lessons he demonstrates in this film are as much those of Sherlock Holmes as they are of a hands-on air marshal, prepared to do whatever it takes to save the plane and all of its passengers.

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