Liam Neeson

“Non-Stop” fails to get out of the gate

With the surprise success of “Taken” in 2009, Liam Neeson’s rise in popularity as an action star — an impressive feat given that the actor was nearing 60 at the time. Since then, Neeson’s become a bona-fide action star, starring in films like “The A-Team,” “Unknown,” and “Battleship.” “Non-Stop,” Neeson’s latest outing, puts the actor through the same motions in a new setting, and is ultimately as forgettable as tasteless peanuts and pre-flight entertainment. 

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a washed-up, alcoholic Air Marshal who is contacted by a faceless adversary on a flight from New York to London. Marks is faced with a life-or-death situation: the mysterious enemy wants $150 million wired to an account, and he will kill a passenger on the flight every 20 minutes until he gets it. Though the phone usage is plausible given the FAA’s recent lift of phone restrictions on flights, but the plot’s over-reliance on people texting each other during the flight makes the siutaion seem less believable as the plot goes on. 

The initial set up of the mystery actually gives the impression that “Non-Stop” will be smarter than its premise implies. Rather than try to track down the assailant alone and expose himself an obvious frame attempt, Marks employs the assistance of the pilots, his partner on the plane, and even a fellow passenger, Jen (Julianne Moore). The entire situation feels like a set-up from the start, and Marks looks as if he won’t fall into a cycle of plot-induced stupidity by enlisting allies. It doesn’t last, unfortunately, and Marks is quick to forget strength in numbers when the film needs to put him in a situation that will make the other characters suspicious of him. The uneven script makes a rough jump from nobody beleiving that the threat is real — an odd amount of skepticism given how serious airline security is taken in our modern climate — and everyone jumping to suspect Marks as soon as the threat begins to prove credible.

Despite the film’s impressive ensemble, none of the performers do memorable work. Julianne Moore is delightful as always, but her character’s excitement at the chance to be involved in solving the mystery inappropriate considering she’s facing a potential plane hijacking. Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) is the most noteworthy in the cast as an NYPD officer, but neither he nor “12 Years a Slave” co-star Lupita Nyong’o are given enough material to make any sort of impression. Neeson, meanwhile, has settled comfortably into the ‘aging warrior’ archetype he’s embodied since “Taken,” and doesn’t step outside the box here. The opening shots show Marks spiking his coffee (the booze inexplicably poured in slow motion), the first of a rapidly expanding laundry list of reasons that the character is widly unqulaified for his job. There’s a character history that explains his fatigue, but the film ruins any nuance by forcing Neeson into a groan-inducing monologue where he explains his tragic past. 

“Non-Stop” is directed by Jaume Collett-Serra, who also directed Neeson in the forgettable thriller “Unknown.” Like that movie, “Non-Stop” fails to stage a compelling mystery, its reliance on a convoluted premise and increasingly questionable character choices derail any plausibility or tension. The big reveal in the film’s climax feels both unrealistic and unsatisfying. Ultimately, “Non-Stop” can’t get off the ground as an intelligent thriller or an action movie, and is ultimately about as enjoyable as a transatlantic red-eye. 

Genre: Thriller
Run time: 106 minutes
Director: Jamue Collett-Serra

Liam Neeson stars in Olivier Megaton’s “Taken 2.” 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Once upon a time, Luc Besson was the crown jewel of French action cinema. Works like “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element” and “Léon: The Professional” are memorable landmarks of the genre, and Besson had a fresh sensibility for how to stage an action film. And now Besson is the guiding hand for flat, unexciting disasters like “Colombiana,” “The Transporter 3” and the extremely disappointing “Taken 2.”

Those three films were directed by frequent collaborator Olivier Megaton. Beside his admittedly awesome name, Megaton has made a career of ineptly staging action scenes and forcing actors to choke out tepid dialogue, and “Taken 2” is no different.

Set in the aftermath of Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) rampage across Europe to find his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), “Taken 2” focuses on the families of Mills’ victims. Most notable among these is generic bad guy Murad (Rade Serbedzija), whose son was killed and who launches a plot for revenge. When Bryan and his family return to Europe for improbable reasons, Murad strikes and a kidnapped Bryan is forced to rely on Kim to rescue him in a surprising turn of events.

If there’s one large complaint to be lodged against “Taken 2,” it’s the complete and utter lack of logic that went into seemingly every facet of its script. It would take more words than I have to list all of the plot holes and plain stupidities found within this film, and with Besson behind the typewriter, this no longer surprises me. Besson’s writing has grown increasingly erratic as of late and seems to have forgotten the difference between dumb fun and just plain dumb. For example, Bryan’s master plan to escape captivity involves his daughter throwing grenades into public places so he can hear how far away the explosion is and guide her to him. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Neeson is doing the best he can here, and there are moments of one-sided tenderness in his interactions with his family. Unfortunately, Famke Janssen (playing Bryan’s wife) and Grace aren’t quite as skilled, and they flounder in the shallow pool of Besson’s script. The rest of the cast is mostly one-note villains, and the lead antagonist, Murad, is so thinly defined that I’m not sure his name is even mentioned in the film.

All of that would be fine if “Taken 2” at least had some good action under its belt. Unfortunately, even the best conceived action beats in the film are captured with the spastic, shaky filming style that’s been hobbling cinematic carnage ever since “The Bourne Supremacy.” Olivier Megaton frankly has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to filming an action scene, and the lack of clarity and geography in the film only serve to underline all of the elements of “Taken 2” that make no sense.

I really wish I liked “Taken 2.” The first film was a blast and redefined Neeson’s career in a huge way. But this follow-up is nothing but a smart concept executed in an uninspired, illogical manner. “Taken 2” has so little respect for its audience and their intelligence that it’s almost insulting. By taking the time to go to see the film, you’d probably be putting forth more effort than Megaton and Besson put into making it.

Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Inept action taken too far, sequel lukewarm at best

Perseus (Sam Worthington) and Zeus (Liam Neeson) reunite in ‘Wrath of the Titans.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros).

No one was really asking for a sequel to 2010’s “Clash of the Titans.” After all, that film was an absolute mess; a horrendously written money pit that somehow managed to nail the casting of its mythical figures, but completely mishandled their portrayals. Any film that can bungle Liam Neeson as Zeus doesn’t deserve a second chance, and yet, Warner Bros decided to take another shot at this world and these characters. While “Wrath of the Titans” certainly isn’t at the height of its genre, it’s a vast improvement over the first film and pretty entertaining to boot.

The film picks up roughly a decade after the first. Perseus (Sam Worthington) has renounced his father, Zeus (Neeson), and is living as a human with his son. When Zeus is trapped by Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in an attempt to free their father Cronus, Perseus is drawn back into the struggle between gods and men and also has to contend with envious half brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez).

“Clash” director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jonathan Liebesman between films, and it proves to be a mostly fruitful decision. With his last film, “Battle Los Angeles,” Liebesman displayed a good sense for racing through tedious character setup and goofy dialogue to get to the action, which he shoots with a gripping immediacy. All of those traits are on display here. Liebesman makes the film’s convoluted setup painless and quick, and before the film’s first reel is up, he’s thrown us into our first action sequence, an entertaining, visceral battle with a chimera.

Unfortunately, Liebesman struggles with later action scenes. Too many of the film’s biggest beats lack a sense of geography or consistency, leading to general incomprehensibility. Even so, he recovers nicely for the finale, which manages to bring the film’s narrative to a satisfying, appropriately rousing climax and impresses in terms of scale, narrative movement and special effects.

It’s a shame that so much of “Wrath’s” action is a failure, because the film’s story is paper-thin, a mishmash of Greek mythology’s MVPs thrown together with the creativity you might expect from a 7-year-old breathlessly banging his action figures together. The film’s dialogue is often hilariously obvious, and Sam Worthington continues to be a charismatic black hole, not especially likeable or sympathetic, but good-looking enough to be classified a leading man nonetheless. Better casted are Ralph Fiennes and especially Liam Neeson, whose steely gravitas is fantastically suited to the Greek gods of lore.

“Wrath of the Titans” isn’t always great, and it’s often pretty stupid. Even so, Liebesman gets a few moments to show off some legitimate chops for action, and Liam Neeson gets to be Zeus, which is all I really wanted from these films to begin with. It’s a massive step up for the franchise, but in a week where theaters around the country are playing “The Raid: Redemption,” it’s a huge step down for action fans.

Liam Neeson turns in a powerful performance in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films).

When the first trailer for “The Grey” hit, the idea of Liam Neeson reuniting with his “The A-Team” director Joe Carnahan for an extended arctic battle with wolves sounded almost too awesome to be true. However, “The Grey” is not the film the trailers make it out to be: a brutal, unexpectedly touching survival film that’s a far cry from the goofy escapism Neeson has been starring in recently.

“The Grey” opens with Ottway (Neeson) working security for an Alaskan drilling team. Once a plane ends up off course and crashes, Ottway finds himself leading a small group of survivors as territorial, vicious wolves pick them off one by one.

It’s a shame “The Grey” is being released in January, because a Thanksgiving weekend release and strong campaign could easily have translated into a Best Actor nomination for Neeson, who could have only made this film at this exact point in his career. Neeson wasn’t always an action hero, and “The Grey” fuses the cinematic badass of “Taken” and “Unknown” with the respected star of “Kinsey” and “Schindler’s List” with ease and grace.

Neeson gives a truly incredible performance here, grounding the film with his gravelly Irish brogue. A scene early on where he prepares a fatally wounded passenger for his impending demise is an exquisitely powerful moment, and one of the first indicators that “The Grey” is going to be something much more complex than you might expect. Neeson continues to impress throughout, and a tragic subplot concerning Ottway’s wife gives added heft to Neeson’s raw, noteworthy performance.

As good as Neeson is, he’s backed by a supporting cast filled with great turns. Dallas Roberts gives a heartfelt performance as perhaps the most decent man in the group, and Frank Grillo’s character, Diaz, is played as the stereotypical grating jerk in the film’s early moments. However, as his character’s layers are stripped away, Grillo adds more and more nuance to the role, climaxing with a beautiful scene by a lakeside.

The film marks a clear departure for Carnahan, who showed great promise with the 2002 cop drama “Narc” but steered away from subtlety in favor of brainless gunfights with films like “Smokin’ Aces.” Here, Carnahan juggles effectively written character beats with a few bravado action scenes. In particular, the plane crash that strands the characters is set up with a haunting shot of the passengers, blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen, before Carnahan throws everyone into pure chaos as the plane begins to break off. It’s a visceral, seat-gripping scene that literally takes your breath away, and it’s barely 20 minutes into the film. Carnahan does just as well with the smaller moments, painting a precise, human portrait of machismo, survival and acceptance in the face of sheer terror and almost certain death.

Much of this death is brought about by packs of wolves that stalk the heroes, and while the special effects bringing them to life aren’t always convincing, the menace that Carnahan’s script and direction instill in them is terrifying. Ottway’s studied expertise in dealing with lupines proves to be a fairly lucky stroke for the group, but the wolves in this film are a constant threat, and “The Grey” often reminds us of that with a vicious attack or even an ominous howl.

Is “The Grey” the movie it’s advertised to be? Absolutely not. It’s a much better film, an emotional powerhouse of a survival thriller with a wonderful performance from Neeson and a reminder that Carnahan can stage intense drama just as well as he can blow stuff up. Audiences may be disappointed by the film’s ending, and while it’s a bit unsatisfying, it’s a masterful, thematically appropriate finale and somehow manages to be both inspiring and tragic. “The Grey” is the survival genre at its very best, a macho film that’s also unabashedly philosophical and moving, and it sets the bar very high for the rest of 2012.

Printed on Friday, January 27 as: 'The Grey' provides example of successful survival film