A high-flying whodunit that will keep you guessing until the very end, Non-Stop reunites Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson to tell the story of a haunted federal air marshal who becomes a suspect in the very hijacking he is racing to halt. Red herrings abound as screenwriters Chris Roach, Ryan Engle, and John W. Richardson steadily raise the stakes and offer clunky commentary on media accountability and the post-9/11 culture of "security" in America, but they rarely falter when it comes to developing the mystery.
From the moment we first meet Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson), it's apparent his nerves are frayed. After furtively knocking back a stiff drink in the airport parking lot, he enters the crowded terminal to board a plane bound for London. Carefully observing his fellow travelers along the way, Marks eventually ends up seated next to nervous flyer Jen (Julianne Moore), who begins to breathe easier once she's seated near a window. Later, as the plane hits cruising altitude, Marks receives a mysterious text message stating that a passenger on the flight will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited into a secure bank account. But the harder Marks works to identify a suspect, the deeper he implicates himself in what becomes a deadly hostage crisis unfolding at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. When it's revealed that the account for the ransom money is in Marks' name, the FAA revokes his marshal status and the media paints him as a hijacker. As the frightened passengers begin to turn on Marks, he suspects the true culprit may not even be on the plane. And with the help of Jen and perceptive airline hostess Nancy (Michelle Dockery), he attempts to clear his name and protect the passengers by any means possible.
As with any mystery, the key to establishing a tense atmosphere is a solid setup. By painting their protagonist as seriously flawed and subtly establishing a rogue's gallery of suspects before the flight even takes off, Roach, Engle, and Richardson rouse our inner-detectives as Collet-Serra's anxious direction summons some serious pre-flight jitters. Neither the writers nor director try to reinvent the genre here, but that isn't their goal. They know just how much to show in order to keep us guessing, and even when Collet-Serra's stylized visualization of text messages (Neeson seems constantly flanked by floating text bubbles early on) begins to grow repetitive, he manages to freshen things up with a few clever sight gags. Likewise, when the bursts of action eventually come, the director makes exceptional use of limited space - using tight shots to emphasize the claustrophobia of the crisis, and highlighting the conflict experienced by Marks through his interactions with the crew members who have worked with him before.
Meanwhile, the supporting players aid the filmmakers by keeping their cards close to their chests -- a factor that will certainly come as a relief to those who thought they had cracked the case simply by watching the trailer and assessing the cast. The less you know walking into Non-Stop, the more satisfying of an experience you're likely to have, and following the massive disappointment of Taken 2, it's refreshing to see Neeson's tough-guy image turned against him as he fights to save the passengers and clear his reputation. That factor and some ingenious misdirection help make Non-Stop an improvement over the director/star duo's slick yet derivative Unknown. This is ultimately a satisfying update on the airplane-disaster genre, which has never been quite the same since Leslie Nielsen famously deadpanned, "Don't call me Shirley."