- - Thursday, February 27, 2014

Remember Liam Neeson before “Taken?” He was brooding and serious, a respectable, actorly presence even when cast in not-so-respectable movies, a man whose cinematic gravitas made him a formidable enemy to Batman, and whose husky snarl of a voice carried so much weight and authority that it almost disguised the impenetrable awfulness of George Lucas’ dialogue in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”

These days Mr. Neeson is still, well, he’s still all of those things. Except now he’s one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars too.

Since the unexpected success of “Taken,” Mr. Neeson has become an action brand all to himself, starring in a series of brutal, efficient, and generally rather enjoyable no-frills action romps that cast him in the role of aging enforcer — the older, tougher guy who you really don’t want to mess with.

But of course, someone always does. In “Non-Stop,” it’s an unknown passenger on a flight — with, yes, non-stop service — from London to New York. Mr. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a grizzled federal air marshal tasked with protecting the passengers on the flight.

When we first meet Marks, he’s already down on his luck — a haggard, unshaven loner who pours booze into his paper coffee cup before boarding. And his bad day is about to get a lot worse. Just after takeoff, he receives an anonymous message on his phone: Someone on the flight promises to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited into a specified account.

The set-up is part high-flying thriller, part claustrophobic mystery, with an entire fuselage full of red herrings.

Who among the sea of vaguely recognizable faces could be sending the messages? Is it the creepy-looking co-pilot (Jason Butler Harner) from the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”? The suspicious-looking bald guy who played Congressman Russo in the first season of “House of Cards” (Corey Stoll)? The nebbish-looking nerd who had a supporting role in “Argo” (Scott McNairy)? Maybe it’s Marks’ flustered, but slightly too-friendly seatmate (Julianne Moore).

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s Marks himself.

The movie powers through the possibilities with affable gusto — for the most part embracing the absurdity of its premise rather than taking itself too seriously.

The second act is mostly marking time until the true villain is revealed, but that’s hardly a problem when Liam Neeson’s along for the ride. He barks orders with a voice that sounds like it’s emanating from some deep mountain mining operation, and roughs up suspects with a muscular authority that makes even routine interactions extra gripping.

The movie only truly loses air speed when the real world threatens to take over: There’s a fruitless attempt to ground the story in the reality of post-9/11 airport security that makes little sense and is best ignored.

Instead, pay attention to Mr. Neeson, whose burly charisma elevates this silly, formulaic movie into an engaging, pleasantly forgettable entertainment. Sure, it’s still a silly, formulaic movie — but it’s a silly, formulaic movie starring Liam Neeson.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

Three stars 

TITLE: “Non-Stop”

CREDITS: Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle

RATING: Rated PG-13 for language, violence

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes


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