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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Non-Stop


Non-Stop (Two and a Half Stars)

U,S,: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014

If you’d like to fly but you’re  not in the mood for the aeronautical poetry of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, if that’s just too arty and ambitious for you, there’s another airplane movie around now that, compared to Miyazaki‘s, is so non-artsy, so  action-packed, so super-clichéd and so mind bogglingly illogical,  that it‘s almost entertaining..

That’s the nonsensical Non-Stop, directed by Spanish moviemaker Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Robert W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Lyle Engle. It’s a pretty exciting  but  also absurd air-disaster thriller, with star Liam Neeson archetyping it up as a sodden, angst-ridden  but super-tough Federal air marshal named Bill Marks, who is battling a maniacal, mysterious hijacker, aboard a transatlantic flight full of the usual suspects — and it’s about as preposterous as a movie like this can get without dragging in Godzilla as one of the hijackers and having it do a hula on the right wing.  Almost nothing in the movie is halfway plausible, except for a few early getting-to-know-you conversations between Neeson‘s Marks, and Julianne Moore as a knowingly flirtatious gal passenger. (They were the only scenes I liked).

Yet, for me at least, Non-Stop was never so exhilaratingly awful that it moved into so-bad-it’s-good territory. It‘s done fairly well, in fact, and it has an unusually good cast, whose time, like ours, is being criminally wasted. But does it matter? Non-Stop is obviously one of those movies where the moviemakers were far more interested in making money than in making sense. (And they will, they will.)

Neeson — who once upon a time made movies like Schindler‘s List and Michael Collins, and I hope will again some day — has a massive screen presence. He looks like he could deck a charging buffalo if the buffalo got him mad. And  he follows in his own recent Taken-Unknown footsteps here as Marks, the troubled hot-trigger hunk with a gun, whom we first see swilling some booze to get his heart started, and who then scruffily mounts the plane whose passengers he’s supposed  to guard, looking mournful and Irish and alcoholic and what-the hell.

Since Taken, Liam’s specialty has been beating the crap out of a lot of people, who keep coming at him in waves  — while still seeming to be a sensitive guy with a big heart, who‘s nice to women. But in this case, he’s picking on not a bunch of international gangsters, but  on the mostly helpless, innocent  passengers, while trying to uncover the identity of the mysterious maniacal hijacker among them who keeps texting him on his cell phone, threatening to kill a passenger every twenty  minutes and apparently doing it, with Marks’ unintentional help. The bad guy will only stop this serial carnage if the airline (Aquafresh, or sorry, Aqua British, it’s called — which sounds like  the last plane someone like Marks would be riding) transfers $150 million to an offshore account, which mysteriously happens to be in Marks’ name.

Words fail me here. Can you swallow this? A plane hijacking plot that has a mysterious maniac killing off the passengers (or maneuvering them into being killed by Marks) one by one,  communicating threats by cell phone (without apparently being seen), by texting (which, as Todd McCarthy pointed out,  probably wouldn’t be operating over the Atlantic anyway), while taunting a boozing hot-tempered Federal Air Marshall, our man Marks, who desperately keeps terrorizing his own passengers, and occasionally knocking one of them off? And did we mention the  bomb on the plane, ticking away, like the climax of a cut-rate James Bond movie? The bigger question: Will Marks and the maniac succeed in depopulating the movie enough and killing the passengers before the plane gets blown up, or gets shot down by the other airline enforcers, or we find out who the maniac really is?

Who indeed? In the movie, Moore plays Jen Summers, Marks‘ saucy seatmate, whom he enlists for a while as a killer-spotter. Lady Michelle Dockery (of “Downton Abbey“) plays a worried-looking stewardess (or flight attendant or steward-person). Nate Parker plays a touchy computer guy. Scoot McNairy plays a buttinsky who keeps engaging Marks. Corey Stoll is a tough New York Cop, Kyle Rice is a pilot. Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o tunes up by playing the role we’ll always remember, another fight attendant, named Gwen — a part with barely five lines or so, none of which are “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” Omar Netwally plays a sort of token Muslim doctor. And Quinn McColgan plays the obligatory adorable little girl — the most suspicious character in the movie, I thought.

Now, you would think that even an idiot could find somebody who keeps texting messages and killing people (or having them killed) on a sold-out plane in flight. And it also seems peculiar that a hijacker trying to extort $150 million would threaten to blow up the plane on which he or she is actually riding. But that’s  only another example of the script‘s screwball logic — which also has  Marks’ superior (Shea  Wigham) warning him  that if  the pilot tries to land the plane, he’ll order it shot down, with all the passengers  — which sounds like enough to end the Federal Marshal program and to send Aqua British into multiple bankruptcy and international disgrace .

But nothing in the story beats the eventual other motive revealed for all this fuss and chaos, which….


….which, believe it or not, is to promote airline safety.


Incredibly, little or none of this is played for laughs; nor does it get any. Collet-Serra’s direction (he made the nightmarish Unknown with Neeson), has punch and pace and some verve, and he never tends to linger on anything, which seems like exactly the right strategy for material like this. Neeson, with his anxious eyes and Viking frame,  gives his part what the movie needs to keep it from collapsing into total inanity: truculent charm, a mournful countenance,  and a penchant for beating the crap out of everybody. As for the rest of the cast  — and Neeson too —  we should consider it a major acting triumph on everybody’s part that they played all these scenes  without cracking up.

Non-Stop eventually, blessedly, does. I can’t say I wasn’t occasionally amused –or that you might not be — but why encourage it? Some of the reviewers who enjoyed (with reservations) this aeronautical dimwittery argued that it’s wrong to expect logic out of movies like this, that they’re just “popcorn movies,” just dumb fun,  just “B movies,”  and that it’s stupid to expect anything but stupidity from them, which is  what audiences want. anyway.

But do they? Or is that just what audiences are used to getting? Why can’t our action movies or thrillers have more plots that make sense, good characters, good dialogue, a moratorium on clichés, and maybe even a few interesting  ideas about life? They used to. Some of them still do.  But that certainly isn’t what we get out of recent thrillers or shockers like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit or 3 Days to Kill, or the new Robocop or I, Frankenstein or Non-Stop. And it seems as much a misnomer to call this multi-multi-million-dollar show with its mega star lead and near-all-star cast and knockout production values a “B movie” as to call its script a script. Shouldn’t critics try to encourage good writing in movies, and discourage logic-challenged, opportunistic hackwork?

Oh, and did I mention that after Marks kills one guy and leaves the body in the airplane john, after one of the most claustrophobic fights ever,  nobody apparently finds the corpse for several hours? Huh? Maybe though, that one does make sense. Maybe the passengers and flight crew all had the piss and shit scared out of them by Liam Neeson.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon