A satisfying, primitive bluntness distinguishes “Non-Stop,” an action thriller that makes good on its title. In the 1950s, its star might have been Edmond O’Brien, a character actor who landed a few leading roles, including, in “D.O.A.,” as a poisoned man racing against the clock to find his murderer. With escalating clammy desperation he hurtles toward his fate, ticktock, ticktock. Liam Neeson runs a similarly frantic circuit in “Non-Stop,” as an air marshal trying to outwit a villain vowing to knock off a passenger every 20 minutes, ticktock, ticktock.
When Mr. Neeson stirs an early morning drink with a toothbrush at the start of “Non-Stop,” the image suggests Denzel Washington’s boozing pilot in “Flight.” (Movies about really bad plane trips constitute a near subgenre, from the absurdist comedy of “Airplane!” to the spectacle of disaster in “Fearless.”) But Mr. Neeson’s character, Bill Marks, is a rather less complex cat: He’s an airborne cop with an apparently sad past and a sagging face and demeanor to go with his heartache. What complicates this early morning drink is that when the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, lingers on Mr. Neeson’s face, it’s a clear invitation to speculate on whether the actor’s eerie, unfocused look comes from the performance or from his life.
Watch 300 Rise of an Empire Online FreeSoon enough, Bill is on the move, strolling through an airport, profiling potential problems and settling into one of the fancier classes. By the time the seatbelt signs have flashed, Mr. Collet-Serra has efficiently introduced a handful of familiar faces — and prospective heroes and villains — including Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache and Shea Whigham. It’s the kind of well-stocked ensemble — shades of “Murder on the Orient Express” — that works because it expands the narrative options (him or her or him?).
Here, the casting, intentionally or not, has a touch of wit because Ms. Dockery (the iron Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey”) is working the aisles as an attendant, alongside Ms. Nyong’o (known as the enslaved Patsey in “12 Years a Slave”).
Bill isn’t a predictable hero, at least initially, but a palpably human and unreliable one who shakes from fear during takeoff and then locks himself in a bathroom, duct tapes the air vent and has a smoke. He also eyeballs alcohol like a man dying of thirst, betraying a struggle for self-control and suggesting a world of pain with a single sidelong look.