About 10 minutes into “Non-Stop,” you realize the movie’s scratching a particular and pleasurable itch. A cross between a drawing room mystery and an airplane-of-fools drama, the film introduces a broad range of character types played by a rogue’s gallery of talent: Look, there’s Julianne Moore as the stressed-out businesswoman desperate for a window seat! There’s Corey Stoll, the late congressman of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” as a macho jerk! Ubiquitous character sleaze Scoot McNairy (“Argo,” “Promised Land”) as the twitchy guy in 22C! Michelle Dockery — Lady Mary Crawley of “Downton Abbey” — as Nancy the air hostess! And you can guarantee this is the last time Lupita Nyong’o, whose Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” is nearly assured, will have to play a supporting role as a stewardess.
Towering over them all is Liam Neeson, who, as usual, looks like hell. Is there an actor who has ever seemed more miserable about kicking butt? He plays Bill Marks, a US Marshal with past family tragedies and a present drinking problem who starts receiving threatening text messages while working a New York-to-London night flight. The faceless culprit wants $150 million wired into an offshore account or he’ll kill a passenger every 20 minutes. For added fun, he’s framing Bill as the perpetrator, a disgruntled public servant gone postal from grief and booze.
Obviously, Neeson functions well in situations like this. Since “Taken” turned the Irish actor into an unexpected action star in 2008, he has become the thinking man’s Chuck Norris, cracking bones and dispensing vengeance with troubled Shakespearean gloom. “Non-Stop” is directed ably and anonymously by Jaume Collet-Serra, who guided Neeson through the nutty reverse-amnesia plot of 2011’s “Unknown,” and it’s basically a black-box set-up, a story line locked into its single airborne location. Because the villain could be anyone on that plane, the hero is able trust no one. Which only screws on Neeson’s tragic mask tighter.
Once we get past the opening scenes on the ground — character introduction by way of TSA, how you behave at the security checkpoint decreeing your philosophy of life — “Non-Stop” juggles suspense with occasional bursts of mid-air mayhem. Marks has to find the maniac, hide a body or two, flirt dourly with Moore’s Jen Summers, calm a little girl (Quinn McColgan) — if this were the ’70s, she’d be played by Linda Blair — consult with the Muslim physician (Omar Metwally) in 13D, and put down a violent insurrection by a splinter group of passengers led by Stoll.
There’s enough going on, and in tight enough quarters, that you’re willing to overlook the head-banging absurdity of the plotting, not to mention all those text-messages whirling like malevolent thought bubbles around the hero’s head. (This is now an accepted part of going to the movies: audiences staring at a screen watching characters stare at a screen.) Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle bet that the central hook — Who’s the bad guy? How’s he doing this? — will keep us paying attention. And they’re right.
At a certain point, though, they have to address the question of why the bad guy, and that’s where “Non-Stop” falls apart. The movie has been developing the sillies for a while anyway, ever since Marks confesses his personal flaws and lousy parenting skills in an inspirational speech to the assembled passengers. There’s a zero-G dive in which a handgun floats right into the hero’s hand, but we expect dumb miracles in B-movies.
No, it’s the revelation of the villain’s motives that leaves you scratching your head and searching for the rewind. In fact, the film’s final 10 minutes are ridiculous enough to almost neutralize the enjoyable stupidity of everything that has gone before. “Non-Stop” comes in for a landing with a bang and a shrug, and Moore in particular looks like her luggage has been grievously mishandled. But she’s used to traveling first class. By now, Neeson knows what it means to fly coach. Maybe that’s why he looks so depressed.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.