For years, decades even, Liam Neeson was an action hero hidden in plain sight.
Yes, he was an impressive 6-foot-4, with the rangy physical grace of the former amateur boxing champion still visible, but the Oscar nominee for "Schindler's List" could put you away with his acting. Was it necessary or even prudent to have him throttle evildoers with his bare hands?
FOR THE RECORD:
"Non-Stop": A review of "Non-Stop" in the Feb. 28 Calendar section said the movie opens with air marshal Bill Marks (played by Liam Neeson) waiting for a flight to Amsterdam. He is waiting for a flight to London. —
After the box office colossus that was 2008's "Taken," however, Neeson's gift for big-screen heroics was a secret no more. But as "Non-Stop," his latest foray into blockbuster territory demonstrates, the abilities that made him a formidable actor have been key to his success in this more physical world.
Effectively directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously worked with Neeson in "Unknown," "Non-Stop" is a crisp, efficient thriller that benefits greatly from the intangibles Neeson can be counted on to supply.
The actor's face is capable of convincing anguish and despair as well as naked fury, and when he invests himself in a scenario, his authority and integrity sweep us along with him. These are essential qualities to have when your story of serial murder on an airplane cruising at 40,000 feet is not exactly a model of plausibility.
We first meet Neeson's Bill Marks in his car in a New York airport parking lot, not having the best of days and in fact looking, as he shakily pours some Scotch into a paper cup, like he hasn't had a good day in quite some time.
No, Marks is not a pilot (that was Denzel Washington in "Flight"), but it's almost as bad: This nervous wreck is one of some 4,000 U.S. Air Marshals tasked with keeping our skies safe from harm.
Waiting for his flight to Amsterdam on mythical British Aqualantic airlines, Marks lethargically scans the other passengers to see who if anyone looks suspicious. Not only is his heart no longer in his job, we soon find out he's scared of flying as well.
The big galoot's heart, however, is still in the right place. He takes some time with a frightened little girl who's never flown before (this film really does pull out all the stops) and when an entitled Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) insists she simply must have a window seat, he guilts the guy sitting next to him into giving up his.
Marks' real troubles start right after takeoff. He gets a text message, on his secure network no less, informing him that unless he arranges for $150 million to be deposited in a secure account, someone on the flight will die every 20 minutes. Starting now.
As cannily put together by screenwriters John W. Richardson & Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, "Non-Stop's" plot combines two classic mystery devices. One is a variant of the locked room enigma: How is it possible to kill people on an airplane without giving away who you are? The second device was popularized by Agatha Christie in plots like "Murder on the Orient Express" and "And Then There Were None": One member of a group is intent on killing the other people in it.
Obviously, those seeking iron-clad plausibility should look elsewhere, but "Non-Stop" does have its share of unanticipated sequences as well as Neeson's forcefulness. The actor throws himself wholeheartedly into the proceedings, prowling the aisles like a vengeful ghost, trying to keep his own demons in check while matching wits with an enemy who always seems to be one step ahead of him.
Cinematographer Flavio Labiano's camera never leaves the plane while the game is afoot, and Jim May's editing and John Ottman's music add to the pressure, essentially making us feel as trapped as the increasingly restive passengers.
As satisfying as Neeson is, it's crucial to surround him with solid actors, and, as cast by Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, "Non-Stop" makes excellent use of hard-working professionals like Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker and Corey Stoll as fellow passengers on this unlucky flight.
And what would an airplane movie be without a pair of plucky flight attendants, always rock solid in an emergency. "Non-Stop" is especially fortunate here with a crew consisting of Michelle Dockery, slumming after years as Lady Mary in "Downton Abbey," and "12 Years a Slave" Academy Award nominee Lupita Nyong'o as the trusty No. 2. No matter what happens at the Oscars on Sunday, it's safe to predict this will be the last time Nyong'o gets seventh billing in anything.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times