With Liam Neeson on board, Non-Stop could have hit the heights, but, alas, it never leaves the runway
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o
Rating: * * *
The propulsive energy implied by the title is sadly lacking in Non-Stop, a pedestrian airborne action vehicle for Liam Neeson that begins intriguingly enough but never really takes off until far too late. He plays Bill Marks, a paranoid, alcoholic air marshal who finds himself the prime suspect in a terrorist hijacking after someone starts messing with the plane he’s supposed to be protecting. Bombarded with a series of text messages informing him that one person will be killed every 20 minutes until $150m is deposited in a special account, Bill’s doubts about the authenticity of the threat are soon diminished when the first 20 minutes are up and someone does indeed die. The kicker is, they die at his hand.
That’s a fairly nifty starting point for a paranoid thriller. Sadly, it’s also the point at which it becomes apparent that Non-Stop really isn’t going to be the brain-off action thrill ride it should be. That has nothing to do with Neeson – well, not much. Playing the sort of dishevelled professional whose weary, bleary eyes have as much to do with the tragedy he’s clearly experienced in his past as the whisky-laced lattes he’s using in the present to dull the pain, he’s a rock solid leading man for this kind of thing, and he makes it easy enough in the film’s early stages to buy into the fact that Bill is not quite on top of his game. Stalking the airport departure lounge, he views everyone with indiscriminate suspicion, something enhanced by his alcoholic haze, which Spanish genre hack Jaume Collet-Serra renders with partially focused cinematography that’s unusually poetic for this kind of movie.
Alas, as with Unknown, Neeson’s previous collaboration with Collet-Serra, what we have here is a business-class star dealing with standard-class material, something that becomes painfully evident as the plot starts being divulged and the action grinds to a halt. Never leaving the confines of the plane, Collet-Serra just doesn’t know how to wring tension out of a confined space – the built in claustrophobia of the setting soon dissipates as Bill attempts to root out the hijacker in between taking cigarette breaks in the toilets. Part of the problem is that it soon transpires that Neeson’s character isn’t just off his game, he’s terrible at his job. At one point, for instance, he attempts to quell a full-scale passenger rebellion by offering free air travel for a year. Such idiocy is a function of the plot rather than the character, a sure sign that the army of screenwriters attributed to flesh out the premise kept writing themselves into corners. It doesn’t help either that the reams of exposition that bad movies used to deliver in the form of uninspired dialogue now get dumped in text messages that flash-up on screen over Neeson’s head like particularly dull thought bubbles. It’s one thing to listen to actors delivering bad dialogue, but it’s another to have to read approximations of it on screen.
Neeson isn’t the only star being underutilised here though. The film also stars Julianne Moore as Jen, a talkative passenger who insists on having a window seat and ends up next to Bill during take-off, helping soothe his frayed nerves, but also briefly – albeit unconvincingly as far as the plot goes – raising his suspicions about her own potential complicity. Moore’s too good an actress and too big a star to be a background player, but her role here never gets much beyond potential love interest. Early on we see she has a scar on her chest, but it seems to be there for no other reason than to provide Moore with a paycheque-justifying third-act speech, something to convince her and us that she has rather more to do in the film than she actually does. Having said that, at least she fares better than Lupita Nyong’o; the 12 Years a Slave Oscar nominee turns up briefly as an air hostess replete with dodgy English accent.
It’s not until the final minutes – when all the scenes in the action-packed trailer finally kick in – that the movie comes close to living up to its promise. But by then it’s too late, our patience having been tested to the limit and beyond with some specious allusions to 9/11 and unsatisfying revelations about the motivation behind the hijacking.
It’s all a bit of a shame really, because Neeson’s late-period transformation into a throat-punching action star has been one of the more surprising and pleasurable career moves in recent years. Having proven his mettle right out of the gate with Taken, he’s surely due an upgrade. Non-Stop isn’t it.
The Book Thief (12A)
Directed by: Brian Percival
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Oliver Stokowski
Rating: * *
Now that the Holocaust has inspired a movie subgenre with its own tropes and clichés, every new film about it risks trivialising what should never be trivialised. This seems to go double for movies attempting to present events from a child’s perspective. Following Life is Beautiful and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, this adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling young adult novel offers yet more tastefully bloodless imagery of Nazi oppression, but outstrips the aforementioned examples for ill-judged moments when Death (voiced by Roger Allam) pops up as the film’s narrator.
Unfortunately what follows isn’t much of an improvement. Revolving around an illiterate German orphan called Leisel (Sophie Nélisse) who befriends a handsome young Jew (Oliver Stokowski) hiding out in the basement of her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), the film seems to have been made for the Downton Abbey crowd (director Brian Percival has directed multiple episodes of the Brit TV sensation) rather than the book’s target audience.
The result is a film that fails to capture with any authenticity the bewilderment of its young heroine, especially as she becomes a witness to the incomprehensible horror encroaching on both her childhood and humanity as a whole.
Ride Along (12A)
Directed by Tim Story
Starring: Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Tika Sumpter
Rating: * *
The astronomical US box-office receipts currently being enjoyed by Ride Along ($125m and counting) should probably be regarded as no more baffling to UK audiences than the British success of something like the The Inbetweeners Movie might be to Americans. In other words: sometimes comedy just doesn’t translate, even when we share the same language. That’s certainly the case with this irritating mismatched buddy movie.
Starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, the film casts the former as cop whose protective instincts towards his sister (Tika Sumpter) have convinced him that her current beau (Hart) is no good for her. She won’t be told, however, so he comes up with an alternative plan to get him out of her life: exploiting Hart’s determination to become a cop like him, he agrees to take him on a ride along in order to break his spirit by hazing him for much of the day. Plenty of mirthless slapstick duly follows – mostly involving Hart’s diminutive size and his inability to stay cool under pressure – until a subplot involving dirty cops kicks in, forcing them to work together in order to stay alive. Shrieking his way through the film, Hart’s performance is fingernails-on-a-blackboard annoying. Ice Cube, meanwhile, seems content to drift along as his mean-spirited straight man, dropping in the occasional honking reference to his hip-hop back-catalogue.