But Non-Stop takes a sharp roll left around the 20 minute mark, and keeps us guessing for a full hour, a little trick even Taken (Neeson’s best, most popular film) can’t match. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has frequently chased his inner-Hitchcock, blending horror and mystery in films like House of Wax, Orphan, and Unknown. Here, however, he imitates Agatha Christie, the diabolical Queen of Crime whose mystery novels were less painful than perplexing—more intrigue than entrails.
Like any good murder mystery, Collet-Serra identifies some seven or eight suspects straight away. There’s the sleepy, bloodshot Austin Reilly (Corey Stoll of House of Cards Season 1); the meticulous, briefcase-carrying Jack Hammond (Anson Mount); the part-nosy, part-alluring Jen Summers (Julianne Moore). Rather than skimming over the mystery’s fun, the director embraces it, allowing the camera to linger stubbornly on each potential hijacker as Marks stands by them in the security line or watches them take their seat. We see every quick glance and nervous gesture, Collet-Serra daring us to suspect each character in turn. "Surely, she is the culprit,” you’ll think, ten different times before the true perpetrator is revealed.
Non-Stop also understands what so many movies do not: that investing in five small, sensible surprises is better than banking on one big twist. The misdirections come early—and appropriately often. Better yet, the reveals vary in magnitude, style, and circumstance. One moment we’re learning a tiny-buy-crucial piece of Marks' past, but the next, we're pondering a whole new suspect. Even as the film cruises into the final act, you’ll be impressed by the balance of chaos (the on-screen action) and control (the tight progression of the plot, the slow narrowing of the suspect list, the gathering cache of evidence).
Regrettably, all that smart intrigue goes into a tailspin (literally) in the film’s final half hour, as Collet-Serra abandons detection in favor of fist fights, gun shots, and bombs. At its best moments, Non-Stop presents viewers with a 200-piece puzzle, prodding us to put it together in an elaborately conceived tapestry of clever schemes and secret alliances. In the end, however, the completed puzzle takes only four or five pieces, the hundred others exposed as red herrings, like pieces put back in the wrong box.
The flat ending doesn’t spoil the fun, but it doesn’t take any advantage of the fun either. A better movie would have had us marveling over a surprise climax; in Non-Stop, we’re puzzling over some forced 9/11 commentary. I don’t think the writers made the wrong choice so much as they intentionally called it quits, confident that the early tricks and Liam Neesonness would be more than enough, that overthinking the ending simply wouldn’t be worth all the extra work. And in some ways, they were probably right. A more ambitious finale might have worked, but it also might have upstaged the cleverness of the film’s first hour. In the end, I’ll remember Non-Stop more for its mid-film highs than its late lows—and besides, I should have known where this was going. In Non-Stop, as in most of Hollywood, what goes up has a habit of eventually coming down.