Veterans and characterful stars are so good to have in a movie. If you fashion a cliché from best weathered oak, rather than cheap new pine, it looks less like a cliché. That’s why Non-Stop benefits from Liam Neeson. He may not be John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. But he can do gnarly and creaky as the film’s air marshal hero, who also drinks on duty and smokes in the plane loo (first taping over the sensors).
Some of the best screen heroes are not just over the hill, they are beyond the pale. Think of Dirty Harry. Think of Gene French Connection Hackman. Neeson is nicer than these, but not much saner. For early stretches of the movie we seem to be in Shutter Island at 30,000 feet. Is this Irish-American troubleshooter with a badge himself the man menacing mayhem? Might the threat texts to murder passengers be originating from his troubled mind?
It pays to stay alert and appraise possibilities. Julianne Moore behaves suspiciously as the woman sitting to Neeson’s side. In economy class there is riff-raff by the ton, some of it carrying guns. And since the plane itself is British, any crew person with a posh accent might be – who knows? – the Alan Rickman de demain, waiting to twirl his villainy. Better than most recent mile-high suspense dramas, the film is busy, clever, well-paced.