For the viewer who has thus far found the "Liam Neeson is a broken old man who kicks ass and pummels bad guys to stave off facing his inner demons" genre to be devoid of any real merit, Non-Stop provides no counter-argument (also, if a viewer could hold that belief in the wake of The Grey, no counter-argument is ever likely to change their mind, but I shouldn't digress when it's still the lede paragraph). It is not quite as whole-hearted generic as Unknown, the previous Neeson film directed by present helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, and this isn't an entirely good thing, since some of what gives Non-Stop its personality is addle-minded thematic nonsense. For the most part, though, if you want to see Neeson saying angry things into a phone, have a tormented past involving a female relative, and hold a gun at somebody's face with an expression that veers between soul-dead killer and man with the weight of all the sins of the world pressing down on his shoulders, you know why you want to see that, Non-Stop knows why you want to see that, and it obliges.

That all being said, for a very long stretch, the film is much closer to the best of this very particular subgenre than the worst, as the films contents itself to be more of a thriller than an action film, with Collet-Serra, cinematographer Flavio Labiano, and production designer Alec Hammond conspiring to make the interior of Aqualantic Flight 10 among the most gloriously movie set-ish plane interiors in memory. It's bigger than it has any real reason to be, with considerably brighter, cleaner, and more colorful surfaces than any plane I have, myself, ever been on, but still cramped enough to sell the basic generic requirements of the piece. And the way that Collet-Serra and Labiano frame the wider shots lets us focus on the various extras to just the right degree that they slowly become familiar to us over the course of the hour and a half or so that we spend inside the plane, giving the impression that they're people and not just anthropomorphic props. And so, no matter how ridiculous or contrived the story gets - and it gets plenty ridiculous and contrived before it finally snaps in two, though even then I'm not sure that I would blame the contrivance so much as the half-baked philosophy - there's always a solidity to the proceedings: it doesn't take place in our reality, but it does take place in a reality, one that is consistent and very physical.

That makes for an awfully good thriller, at least to start; one that suggests filmmakers who studied Hitchcock, if not necessarily filmmakers who learned from him. The script presents a nice, basic scenario of a worn-down regular fella named Bill Marks (Neeson) who starts a day like any other with industrial quantities of alcohol and nicotine to get him on a plane, where he shall conduct his job of being a federal air marshal. Only this day, something is amiss, and somewhere between Canada and Iceland, Bill gets a message on a presumably secure line from someone demanding $150 million or they'll kill a passenger every 20 minutes. It's not just a whodunnit, it's a howdunnit: on a small, enclosed space, how could anybody know what they know, and how could they possibly hope to kill people? Not all of those questions are answered, or even addressed (a particularly rankling, though outrageously petty complaint: how did the killer know that Bill sneaked a cigarette in the washroom?), but the mechanics of it are all clever enough to keep things popping along, as Bill goes from paranoid to outright psychotic in trying to figure out which of the other persons onboard is responsible: the pleasant middle-aged lady (Julianne Moore, unfathomably overqualified) who made a big point of asking to sit next to Bill so she could have a window seat? The spectacularly irritable NYPD officer (Corey Stoll) who says unfortunate things about non-whites and gays? The nervous bespectacled guy (Scoot McNairy) who lied to Bill about his destination while they were still on the ground? The Arab doctor (Omar Metwally)? The other marshal (Shea Whigham)? The programmer (Nate Parker) who can make any smartphone do anything he wants? One of the flight attendants (Michelle Dockery and newly-minted Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o)? The little girl (Quinn McColgan) traveling alone for the first time? Tragically, it is not the little girl, which would have been just about the only twist Non-Stop needed to pull in order to make it my new favorite trashy thriller of the 21st Century.

While he's trying to unlock the mystery, Bill ends up on somebody's phone and from there to the internet, and from there a whole news story explodes based on what looks for all the world like an air marshal trying to hijack a plane to hold it for ransom. So there's an old-school wrong man thriller in all of that as well, which is maybe starting to get to be more content than the film can necessarily hold, and it also points out the big flaw in the whole edifice, which is that there are many points where the blackmailer's plot relies on people responding in a very specific way to an event, though that is by no means the only, and maybe not even the most rational, response they could have. For the most part, the film buzzes by fast enough that it doesn't always show up as something to notice, and by strictly taking place as a function of Bill's POV, the film keeps us unaware of the connecting tissues enough that by the time a plot hole manifests itself, we're miles past it. It can do nothing at all to combat the ultimate reveal of Who and Why, and the instant that we know the identity of the person who has been tormenting Bill all along, and what incoherent connection it has to 9/11 (the motivation reads as an attempt to simultaneously placate and indict both hard-right miltarists and hard-left peacniks, resulting in a person who believes exactly what the screenwriters require them to believe), that is the same instant at which Non-Stop ceases to be as interesting, not least because it's when Non-Stop fully stops being a thriller and fully commits to being an action film. And while, throughout, the movie has suffered from far too much editing, leaving nearly every scene a ragged collection of brutally short beats, it becomes actively unpleasant to watch when that editing is applied to the action scenes.

Still, we have at all points the steady North Star of Neeson, with his depressed, scruffy face and his barking irritability, and it remains true as it has all along that these films which would be wholly disposable in any other context get some degree of sincerity and gravity from the simple act of having a genuinely good actor playing the indestructible badass. Neeson has onscreen authority like few thriller stars of any generation, and whether the film is generally working, or generally failing, he still keeps it hanging together. It's still trash, undoubtedly, but trash with a certain spine to it, and a rugged kind of humanity that keeps poking in at the edges (and look, Julianne Moore ain't no acting slouch herself, so it's not The Liam Show and nothing but), giving it just a bit more heft than its wackadoo plotting should really permit.