In "Non-Stop," opening this Friday, Liam Neeson, 61, plays an Irishman called Bill Marks who has wound his way toward a life in the United States where he’s now working as an air marshal, a glorified cop in the sky. His job is to identify and disarm the bad guys before they can carry out their nefarious plans.
But the truth is, human beings seem to have an inexhaustible ability to make bad situations worse. No one can really guarantee your safety anywhere. Security is an illusion that we talk ourselves into believing because the alternative is just too unsettling.
The knowledge that you might die in the next half hour can do wonders for your perspective. Trivial concerns quickly melt away as you focus on what your little life actually means to you, and what you’d likely be willing to do to save it.
In the past few years Neeson has carved out a new career path as a rough and tough action film hero, and "Non-Stop" is his most enjoyable turn in the genre to date.
Terrifically helmed by Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (best known for "Orphan" and "Unknown") the first hour of the film unfolds with an Alfred Hitchcock-level of hidden menace, the mark of a superior horror film.
Neeson, who has admitted to feeling a “wee bit embarrassed” to be playing action heroes at his age, needn’t worry. He looks and sounds terrific in the role and brings gravitas and believability to the story.
No sooner is the plane in the air when our hero Marks starts receiving text messages on a government encrypted telephone line informing him that a hijacker wants $150 million transferred to a private account or they will kill a passenger every 20 minutes. Understandably that gets Marks’s attention.
Neeson is terrific in the role. If he had reservations about taking it on, he dismisses them by turning in a performance that is more nuanced and captivating than the usual lantern-jawed linebackers typically cast in these roles.
In another piece of amazing casting Julianne Moore plays a spirited passenger called Jen Summers, a New Yorker who knows how to put people at their ease (a skill that comes in handy almost right away).
Moore notices Neeson’s gruff demeanor, but sees through it when she notices he’s terrified by takeoffs. “It’s just the takeoffs I hate,” Marks confides.
Neeson himself is perhaps best known for his work on award winning films like "Schindler’s List," so it’s fair to say the public is as surprised as he is by his turn toward action dramas. But it turns out there’s a very good reason for the choice. Neeson keeps on making high octane action films like "Non-Stop" not only for the money, but to stop himself from dwelling too much over the tragic loss of his wife Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 after a skiing accident in Quebec.
“I’m not good without work,” Neeson told Anderson Cooper in an interview on "60 Minutes" last weekend. “I just don’t – I just don’t wallow too much. You know? And I just didn’t want to – especially for my boys – seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression.”
Keeping busy means keeping his head above water. In fact he’s starred in no less than 20 films since Richardson passed away. It was the pulse pounder "Taken" which appeared just two months before Richardson’s death that transformed Neeson overnight from an Academy Award-nominated actor into one of the highest paid action stars in Hollywood.
But it wasn’t a film or a career move that Neeson thought would make good. In fact he thought "Taken" would most likely go straight to DVD. Instead it grossed nearly $150 million in the U.S. alone, and its sequel "Taken 2" earned a similar amount.
“I was convinced it was straight to video, so it would go under the radar,” Neeson told "60 Minutes." “It just seemed such a simple, little story. I thought there was nothing complex about it. There’s a guy determined to find his daughter. Oh yeah, look, he finds her. And he kills all these guys.”
You could write the plot of "Non-Stop" on a paper napkin and have plenty of room left over. It’s really Neeson’s performance and Collet-Serra’s inspired direction that make the film so completely enjoyable.
Not only is Neeson at ease playing a hard-hitting air marshal, he also makes you root for him by refusing the temptation to become an invincible superhero.
“I’m 61 years of age, man, going around fighting these guys. I feel a wee bit embarrassed,” Neeson confided to Cooper with a laugh. He knows his limitations and the limitations of the thriller genre, and so he crafts a performance that is both believable and tough.
If keeping busy is also the best way to keep steady, we have a lot to be grateful for. This is Neeson’s most confident ever performance in an action thriller, a genre he has clearly mastered.
As the bodies pile up and the panic mounts in the hijacked plane, his character Marks feels the pressure but doesn’t crack, allowing us to buy into a premise that could have been a disaster in other hands.
The camera pans and swoops so confidently about the cabin that you can’t help but completely caught up in this 'whodunit' that quickly turns into a why did they do it?
The tension on board never flags, and you can expect to be swept up in the action yourselves. When we finally learn who’s behind this terror and why it’s a little bit preposterous, you forgive it because the roller coaster ride has been so thoroughly entertaining and at times completely unnerving.
In an intimate moment during the interview on "60 Minutes" Neeson opened up for the first time about the details of his wife’s tragic passing.
“I was told she was brain dead. And seeing this X-ray it was, like, wow. But obviously she was on life support and stuff. And I went in to her and told her I loved her,” Neeson explained.
“I said, ‘Sweetie, you’re not coming back from this. You’ve banged your head. It’s – I don’t know if you can hear me, but that’s – this is what’s gone down. And we’re bringing you back to New York. All your family and friends will come.’ And that was more or less it.”
Now Neeson is being a rock for the public in his films, and in his personal life for his sons Daniel and Micheal. Go and see for yourself in "Non-Stop."