Being a bruised-knuckle action hero is a young man’s game. Unless, of course, your name happens to be Liam Neeson. Back in 2009, at the ripe age of 56, the Irish actor pulled off one of the most unlikely career overhauls in years by starring in the ruthless, relentless revenge flick Taken. With one indelible threat growled into a cell phone at the Albanian goons who made the mistake of kidnapping his daughter, Neeson proved that he was more than just a stoic Oscar-nominated leading man. That beneath all the prestige-film trappings lay the beating heart of an unapologetic B-movie badass. For the most part, audiences have made out like bandits from this makeover. Neeson’s imposing 6’4” frame, haunted eyes, and knack for snapping limbs like clery stalks have elevated throwaways such as Unknown, The Grey, and Taken 2 into something more than the sum of their parts. They may not all be memorable films, but they’d be utterly forgettable without the high-gloss patina of a class that he gives them.
The actor’s latest genre-film gambit is Non-Stop — a tense but ludicrous cat-and-mouse thriller at 30,000 feet. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a grieving alcoholic air marshal on board a transatlantic flight to London. His soul is still stinging from the death of his young daughter, but right from the get-go we see that he’s good at his job as he sizes up the boarding passengers, looking for the tells and tics of potential danger. Is his frazzled business-class seatmate (Julianne Moore) as harmless as she seems? Is the Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally) a little too on-the-nose as a possible terrorist? What about the beady-eyed guy (Corey Stoll) sweating back in coach? Or the other air marshal on board (Anson Mount), who calls Bill a paranoid drunk? And is the flight attendant (Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery) to be trusted? These doubts may seem like the figments of Bill’s pickled imagination. But when he receives a series of taunting texts threatening to kill one passenger every 20 minutes unless he can persuade his superiors to wire $150 million to an offshore bank account, his suspicions bear out.
As a rule airplanes make deviously effective settings for trashy mayhem. And the list of high-altitude nail-biters is as long as the security line at LAX: Passenger 57, Air Force One, Executive Decision, Turbulence — and who could forget Snakes on a Plane? Non-Stop isn’t significantly better than any of those films; its twist-a-minute script is patently ridiculous and its appeals to our post-9/11 anxieties are as subtle as a jackhammer. But once again Neeson is a straight-faced secret weapon. With his lion’s roar and can-do fists, he grounds the film’s more preposterous moments and makes them feel excitingly tense. At a certain point either you’ll fasten your seat belt and go with Non-Stop‘s absurd, Looney Tunes logic or you won’t. Against my better judgment, I went with it. After all, Neeson has shown time and again that he’s the closest thing Hollywood has these days to a box office Rumpelstiltskin. He can spin cheese into gold. B