Settling in for a film that takes place almost entirely on an airplane, as does the latest Liam Neeson action flick "Non-Stop," one's instinct is to search for the nearest pillow.
The prospect of nearly two hours on an airliner, without the complimentary peanuts, is not quite the sensory experience we typically seek in the movies. After federal air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) morosely guzzles some whiskey in his car outside JFK Airport, he boards the plane headed for Heathrow that he's to protect, that will be the setting from here on out.
If you're now hitting the "call flight attendant" button for help, you'll be pleased with the results. Things pick up when down the aisle strolls stewardesses Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong'o. The plane populates with our cast: Julianne Moore (Marks' chatty seatmate), a school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a tough New Yorker (Corey Stroll) and a Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally).
Neeson begins getting mysterious text messages from a hijacker on board — a snake on the plane, if you will — who says someone will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is sent to an off-shore account.
The cabin pressure steadily rises. It could be anyone on the plane, a clever little conceit reflective of today's air travel: Everyone is treated like a suspect. In the film's best image, Marks has all the passengers hold their hands up.
But, as with so many high-concept films, it takes an awful lot of implausibility to keep the story airborne. The manner of the deaths turns suspicion to Marks, himself, and even his boss (via phone) believes he's the terrorist. Most incredulously, the plot is propelled by the live coverage of the incident by NY1, that cute little local New York cable channel.
Moore breathes life into the claustrophobia, as does Dockery — both helpful aids to Marks. Nyong'o, the young Oscar-nominated actress of "12 Years a Slave," has barely a line, but sports a cool flat top.
But the question is — as was with the similarly European-backed, one-word titled thrillers "Taken," ''Taken 2" and "Unknown" — what to make of this unlikely action hero turn for Neeson at 61? "Non-Stop" is directed by the Spanish-born filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed "Unknown." Now they're churning them out.
The movies, "Non-Stop" included, are simple, mostly serviceable genre flicks that are smart enough to dispense with exposition but not witty enough to put three acts together.
Neeson's presence — wounded, intelligent, honorable — is much sturdier than these films, which he elevates with ease. It's not an issue of him lowering himself to them, but of these films not raising themselves to Neeson.
On "60 Minutes" recently, Neeson was himself bemused and rather sheepish about this career turn to movies he acknowledged were "straight-to-video" stuff. But his suggestion that he came to "Taken" and the rest because it allowed him to busy himself after the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, gives these movies a melancholy poetry: The weary Neeson, kicking butt to keep the demons at bay.
"Non-Stop," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references." Running time: 106 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.