(C) Universal, StudioCanal

I, like I’m sure most people that have seen this film, was expecting Non-Stop to just be Taken on a plane. In fact, lots of early signs point quite heavily to that, from the February release date (the reviled Tak3n was released around the same time) to the casting of action hero Liam Neeson as a gruff agent, but luckily, Non-Stop isn’t just a rehash of the Taken formula. It surprised me a lot, with some fantastic action, tension and a plot that kept on giving. Maybe Non-Stop isn’t quite as good as Taken, but it’s damn near close.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson stars as Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal who is tasked with protecting a long-haul flight from New York to London. However, he begins to receive texts on the air marshal network from an unknown source, claiming that if $150 million isn’t transferred into his account, one person will die every twenty minutes. But this criminal is one step ahead: already framing Marks for the hijacking of the plane. Not only does Bill have to find whoever is doing this, but also has to clear his name, all while at 30,000 feet.

The plot of Non-Stop, although incredibly zany and quite convenient, is definitely one of the film’s highlights. Unlike a lot of cookie-cutter modern action films, the backstory leading up to the film’s events aren’t specifically laid out until the end, so to start with it’s up to the viewer to figure out what’s going on. I’m not going to give it away, but the entire premise of one person dying every 20 minutes, although rather bland on paper, is executed in a really clever way that occasionally spins the entire action genre on its head. The film goes out of its way to distinguish itself from most modern action films by introducing us – albeit briefly – to a number of supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed in such a way that any of them could be the culprit. It keeps the viewer on their toes, and sets up a very interesting mystery, and I’ll admit that along the way my guess of who the actual culprit was kept changing; a credit to the film’s set up. Admittedly, there’s plenty of plot contrivances, such as how the passengers have live TV and Wi-Fi in their seats, but aside from these issues the plot is solid. The script isn’t fantastic but it gets the job done, despite some heavily expository moments and clichéd lines, however when the film’s multiple plot twists finally emerge, it shimmers. I never saw most of them coming, especially when the villain is finally revealed. On the flight, you can’t trust anyone due to the sheer amount of double-crossing and betrayal going on, which were some of the film’s standout moments. If anything, Non-Stop definitely keeps you on your toes (and entertained).

The characters in Non-Stop, for a modern action film, are also pretty good. Neeson’s Bill Marks is an incredibly flawed character, with a serious drinking problem and plenty of secrets gnawing at him, and although his entire backstory is only given to us at the end, the subtle build-up that comes through extra details helps make Marks a deeper character than  most action heroes. Neeson gives a good performance, perhaps not his best of all time – this is no Schindler’s List – but he’s certainly not phoning it in, providing his typical gruffness and brutality in the fight scenes and confrontations whilst also showing his emotional side when delivering some heartfelt, if expository, monologues. Also solid is Julianne Moore, who plays Jen Summers, a typical passenger who gets drawn in to the action. She’s good here – obviously not Oscar-worthy – but does give a solid performance, however her character felt under-used in the final act where she is pushed to the sidelines despite being a major player in the rest of the film. Also in the film – albeit in minor roles – are 12 Years A Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o and Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery, both of which play flight attendants. It was also a pleasant surprise to see Batman Begins‘ Linus Roache pop up here, albeit in quite a small role. The only performance that I was let down with was Jason Butler Harner as co-pilot Kyle Rice, mostly due to his shocking attempt at a British accent, although the characters are on the whole solid.

Technically, the film is pretty good, with a sublime score consisting of a really chilling riff involving shrill violins that really helped to ramp up the tension. The score could easily have been from a horror film because it really was quite unnerving and creepy at times. Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction is quite a mixed bag, with some okay cinematography during the fight scenes, which although brutal when you think about it, are executed in a way that nothing is seen, but some of the film’s framing was wonky, at points with a character talking while only half their face is visible. The CGI isn’t superb, but with a relatively small budget of $50 million and a big-name actor starring, it’s not terrible. The film is paced very well and never dragged, although the film’s resolution did feel a tad rushed, with everything wrapping up quite quickly, leaving quite a few plot holes seeping through the cracks.

All in all, Non-Stop is a pretty good action film that is much more intelligent than most of what the genre has to offer. Some brutal and well-executed actions scenes are sprinkled in between gut-wrenching plot twists and intense moments, although an exposition-filled screenplay and some hammy performances bring the film down. It’s better than most action films these days, and is one of the most under-rated Neeson offerings in recent memory. Taken on a plane this is not – Non-Stop is its own beast.