Virtual terrorism falls short in ‘Non-Stop’

At 61, Liam Neeson continues his late-arriving career as an action hero in the in-flight thriller “Non-Stop.” Unfortunately, the film’s tech-based attempt at delivering terror at 40,000 feet flounders.

It’s become Hollywood tradition that the physically imposing, 6-foot-4-inch Irishman and his likewise impressive voice anchor an action movie during the early months of each year.

“Non-Stop,” featuring Neeson as a stressed-out, alcoholic TSA air marshal on a flight from New York to London, joins the run of Neeson-starring action flicks that began with 2008’s “Taken.”

In “Taken,” Neeson’s former CIA agent laid waste to Albanian sex traffickers who abducted his teen daughter. More action followed with the Alaskan wilderness-set “The Grey” and Berlin-situated “Unknown.”

It’s a credit to Neeson’s acting talent that he’s managed to sustain his action-flick viability so long. But his action days may be numbered. Opening this weekend, “Non-Stop” is the least of the lot.

“Non-Stop” opens grimly as Neeson’s character, haggard U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks, parks at an airport just as he’s done hundreds of times before. He has a drink and a cigarette before checking in.

Inside the airport, Marks complains angrily during a phone call to his supervisor. “I can’t stay in London for three days!” He’s quite the unhappy fellow.

When Marks does visual checks of passengers in the security line, the camera depicts his vision as blurred. A rare clarity comes to him when he helps a hesitant little girl, who’s flying to London all by herself, find the courage to step into the plane.

During boarding the film introduces a series of seemingly typical passengers to the air marshal and the audience. In this post 9/11 age, the camera pointedly focuses on the apparently Muslim Dr. Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally).

Julianne Moore, playing the woman who gets the window seat next to Marks, gets a lot of time on screen that yields little. Lupita Nyong’o, who has a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” is even more underemployed as a flight attendant.

Moore’s character just doesn’t work. Similarly, threats sent to Marks via a series of text messages looming large on the screen are a sort of virtual terrorism that fails to create suspense.

The texts promise that one passenger will die every 20 minutes unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account.

Neeson, an Academy Award nominee for 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” sweats and frets convincingly. The air marshal does whatever he can to locate the source of the threats. But there’s something silly about an action hero who’s constantly staring into his mobile device.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in “Unknown,” shot “Non-Stop” from a script by a trio of novice screenwriters. The flight is heavy with implausible moments and ill-fitting pieces.

Collet-Serra makes the movie’s occasional action scenes pop with visceral eruptions of violence. And the ending finally delivers, but much of the time “Non-Stop” is a movie on cruise control.