Anyone planning to see Non-Stop should probably just go see it. This is one of those near-perfect, peeled-onion, airplane-hijacking thrillers in which each removed layer brings you closer to a single, happy tear. The level of ridiculousness is equal to the care put into making the ridiculousness possible. It isn’t just the plotting (although the plot goes happily nuts). It’s the sense that a director actually directed, writers actually wrote, and a producer kept the movie together. It’s the idea that a genre movie this generic could have been done with mannequins and still almost have worked. Instead, it’s staffed, cockpit to coach, with good actors having a good time looking suspicious.
Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, an American Irishman and federal air marshal, and even that bit of information takes 20 minutes to reveal and is treated like Deep Throat’s identity. He’s on a flight from New York to London, and not long after takeoff, he exchanges taunting messages with someone on the plane who’s feeling greedy (give me $150 million!) and murderous (or someone dies every 20 minutes!). People do die, in part because Bill can’t get his TSA contact to believe his story. You see, he used to be a cop and a drunk, and he’s still miserable about the death of his daughter. The account intended for the $150 million has been opened in Bill’s name (please don’t ask how; this movie is the opposite of “how”). It’s much easier for everyone on the flight to believe it’s Bill who’s trying to hijack the plane. So not only does he have to catch a terrorist, he also has to persuade the passengers and crew to help him. That takes most of the movie.
This is Agatha Christie doing the nasty with Alfred Hitchcock. One reason to just go see for yourself is the surprising pleasure of the small details. The enjoyment being had at every level of this movie is contagious. The filmmakers love the junk they’re making. Neeson’s incoming texts ding like a bell and spin around him the way stars and birds do around clobbered cartoons. At some point, the phone has a broken screen, and so the spinning text window appears to be on the fritz, too. And the main flight attendants — played by Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong’o — wear snazzy sleeveless uniforms, a kind of fitted boiled wool with leather accents along the shoulders.
Non-Stop is like a hamburger that would’ve been fine as just meat on a bun. But the accumulation of fixings starts to blow your mind. There’s mustard and cheese and mushrooms and jalapeños? Are you kidding me? You come for another helping of Neeson avenging while under siege and get Lady Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey and Patsey from 12 Years a Slave? Plus: Corey Stoll, Nate Parker, Linus Roache, Omar Metwally, Scoot McNairy, Shea Whigham, and the tonic-like presence of Julianne Moore. There are a couple of Germans, a surly B-boy, an accidental daredevil pilot, and a tiny unaccompanied minor who’s scared to fly.
Any one of these people could be guilty, and director Jaume Collet-Serra creates the sort of high-suspicion environment that frees you to cast and recast your doubts. He’s the Spaniard who directed Neeson in Unknown. That was an inane paranoia thriller, too, but it barreled its way to a big, nonsense conspiracy ending. The finale of this movie might be more laughable. The explanation for this hijacking is like Scooby-Doo agitprop. The script is credited to John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, and it culminates in a lot of “Let’s roll,” 9/11, do-it-yourself heroism. But it does so in a way that feels more apt than exploitative, given the makeup of the passengers. You get over the baffling, loony, quasi-libertarian politics of personal freedom. There are more absurdly stressful, explosive matters at hand, like landing intact while flanked by a pair of fighter planes.
This is the best of these Liam Neeson post-traumatic-action-hero films. He’s expanded his career fighting terrorists and wolves. Previously, they’ve kidnapped his daughter (Taken), stolen his memory (Unknown), ruined his suicide plans (The Grey), and kidnapped him (Taken 2). At 61, he’s about a decade older than Charlton Heston was at the height of his disaster-and-apocalypse run in the late 1960s and ’70s, and Neeson’s not risking as much as Heston did.
This stretch of Neeson’s career is comparable insofar as it’s possible he’s playing different offscreen sorrow. With Heston, it was how the movies had changed right under his nose. A repeatedly decimated planet seemed like the right place for a classic-Hollywood star to lose and regain his bearings. Neeson’s assumption of the melancholy-avenger role began the year before he lost Natasha Richardson in a ski accident. Part of the appeal of him in these movies — two of which come from Luc Besson — is that you want to say, “Put the gun down,” and pour him a cup of tea. Since Taken, he’s played a deep ache instead of action. It’s shrewd strategy that’s kept Neeson from complete self-parody. It’s kept him from becoming Heston.
The muscularity on Non-Stop holds the suspense and comedy together. The blasts of air turbulence catch you off guard (they send characters to the ceiling) and make you laugh, like when they prevent Neeson from detecting who, in the main cabin, is texting him. The last big-bang thriller of this kind — a conceptual Hitchcock riff — was 2011’s Source Code, with Jake Gyllenhaal trying over and over to save an exploding train. That movie came with a surprise dose of look-over-your-shoulder science fiction (it had a better script, too). But both movies leave you with the sense that somebody cared about how to pull off plots so potentially risible. Collet-Serra has a talent for sustaining the thrill of action sequences beyond what’s reasonable, and the last sequence in the movie is highly unreasonable. When it’s over, your adrenaline crashes and you can see Non-Stop for the illogic-riddled nonsense it is. But the adrenaline is like a drug. And the drug is something you want again immediately.
Christ movies can give you allegory and parable. They can give you a director’s biblical interpretation. Or they can give you 138 minutes of concentrated Scripture that ends with Jesus urging an audience to “Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” People will always want to spend money for this sort of thing, even if they’ve already seen it. And in this case, they’ve literally already seen it.
Television producer Mark Burnett and his wife — Touched by an Angel actress Roma Downey — helped take five Jesus-oriented episodes of The Bible, which was a big hit last year on the History Channel, and turn them into Son of God, a movie that’s like watching the flame of a giant Christmas candle flicker unto eternity. Their abridgment begins with nativity, culminates with betrayal and then crucifixion, and concludes with resurrection. Meanwhile, the Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado plays the title figure as a precious holy instrument, wrapped in muslin, his arms outstretched, forever proclaiming his instrumentality. The movie proceeds with stiff staging, stiff acting, and the stiff, tear-streamed face of Downey as the Virgin Mary. You don’t need camp or campiness with a movie like this — one based on ancient, familiar material. Cecil B. DeMille isn’t called for (although, under the circumstances, he’d be welcome). All you need is a competent production that takes some risks or has a point of view.
Son of God just politely omits the televised sequence with Satan (people complained he looked too much like Barack Obama), adds deleted scenes, and divides its villainy between the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller). Otherwise, it’s miracles, misery, and Jesus’s greatest hits (“I Am the Way,” “Peter, Turn the Other Cheek,” “One of You Will Betray Me”). You’re permitted to believe the Son of God spends a lot of time predicting the apostles’ bad behavior, leaving them with no option but to sit around with guilty and bewildered looks.
There are museum walls populated with more riveting accounts. I recommend those. Son of God is grueling in its mildness. It doesn’t even come alive for the Stations of the Cross. Morgado mostly smiles and stands and appears. He makes faces of exasperating beatification, faces that remind you another word for muslin is “cheesecloth.”