The label "durable" as in "durable leading man" has never fit Liam Neeson more than it does in these late-career action pictures that have become his bread and butter since "Taken."
He stilllooks like he can take a beating, and so he does. He looks as if he can administer one or two, so he does.
He looks like he might have "particular skills," his character's famous self-description in "Taken." And he proves it.
In "Non-Stop," those skills would be those of a U.S. air marshal, one of the guys entrusted with keeping airline flights free from hijackings. His Bill Marks is a drinker and a smoker, a sad-eyed man who doesn't like to fly but still does this dangerous job for a living - after he's had a toot in the parking lot, a snort in the bar or what not.
And Neeson makes us believe in this guy, first frame to last.
"Non-Stop" is a solid, workmanlike action picture that builds slowly, bends over backwards to over-explain itself and its villain, and delivers a lulu of an ending.
Somebody is threatening the 150 passengers and crew on Marks' cell phone, and framing Marks with the dirty work to his superiors back on the ground. In the wee hours of this red eye from New York to London, that first text arrives on his "secure" phone.
"In exactly 20 minutes, I'm going to kill someone on this plane."
Marks may have had a nip from a bottle before boarding, but he's sharp enough to observe and profile every face on the plane - the hostile bald guy, the young black man in the sunglasses and hoodie, the Muslim, this nervous man or that too-friendly woman.
Julianne Moore plays a helpful passenger sitting next to him. Michelle Dockery (of "Downton Abbey") is the flight attendant who trusts him with their lives. Linus Roache is the pilot who's willing to hear Marks out.
They all give him the benefit of the doubt, upto a point. The script here goes to some pains to make Marks out as a possible suspect, something the viewer never buys into.
Marks struggles to get a handle on things, to keep the passengers in the dark. But as he rousts this one and manhandles that one, they get suspicious. There are New Yorkers on board.
"Does this scenario seem familiar?" they start to ask one another. They're talking 9/11. Or maybe Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians." They don't say.
"Orphan" director Jaume Collet-Serra does a little better by Neeson here than he managed with the identity-theft thriller "Unknown." Jumpy, unbroken tracking shots follow him through the confined space of the plane, building tension as Mark confronts this person or that one, trying to figure out who's texting him. Brawls in the confined spaces of a jetliner - a lavatory, for instance - are thrillingly staged and edited.
But tension is in short supply as we lurch toward that aforementioned lulu of a finale. The red herrings, throwing us off the scent of who is pulling the strings, are well-thought out; the resolution, not so much.
And then there's the talking, rationalizing villainous behavior. Yes, bad guys have a point of view. Only in the movies do they stop, in the middle of the action, to deliver it in a speech.
But Neeson, at 61, is proving to be a more reliable action hero than any of his peers. Grizzled, wrinkled with care and worry, he's not just convincing as a guy with "particular skills," he's a man with the weight of the world - or a jetliner - on his shoulders. He's so real that he makes the somewhat unreal film surrounding him more grounded than "Non-Stop" has any right to be.
2 stars (Grade: C-minus)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roache
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, scripted by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, Ryan Engle. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:44
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references