Thrillers that maintain tension throughout, like the Liam Neeson murder-on-a-plane movie Non-Stop, are rare enough that some of the scripts dumber moves can be forgiven.
But Non-Stops dumbest move suggesting a link between its fictional B-movie plot and the real events of Sept. 11, 2001 cannot be forgiven.
Twelve and a half years in, its still too soon for such liberties.
Telling true stories about that day is one thing. A film even can play on the low-grade anxiety that has accompanied air travel since, as Non-Stop does in more effective moments.
But it always will be too soon, and ghoulish, to write allusions to real-life horrific events into popcorn movies.
Before this development late in the movie, Non-Stop offers solid B-grade entertainment, its claustrophobic, fraught atmosphere lightened occasionally by jokes and always by the warm presences of Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey).
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who worked with Neeson on 2011s Unknown, stokes a general feeling of anxiety within the airplanes darkened cabin as Air Marshal John Marks (Neeson) receives threatening text messages on his secure-TSA phone.
Someone is sending these messages from inside the plane (screenwriters never will stop ripping off When a Stranger Calls). The criminal tells Marks a passenger will die every 20 minutes unless the government wires $150 million to an offshore account.
The script (by John Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle) may strain credibility, but takes off as Marks hurries to find the culprit and Collet-Serra ratchets up the tension.
He secretly scopes out passengers while trying not to alert anyone that theres a situation on board. The films entire cast, down to the extras in seats 26B and 26C, does its best to look suspicious during these scenes.
Non-Stop stretches reality only slightly by having a passenger (a highly strung Corey Stoll, from House of Cards) who suspects something is wrong cast a watchful eye across the aisle at a British doctor (a poised Omar Metwally) of Arab descent.
Prejudices tend to accompany panic. Or just thrillers set in airports or on airplanes.
When the camera lingers on Marks passport before he boards the flight, revealing his birthplace as Belfast, I thought, They let people from Belfast be air marshals? What about the IRA?
But they let people who drink all day be air marshals in Non-Stop. Marks boards the plane already a few sheets to the headwind. Flight attendant Nancy (Dockery) knows about his drinking, which appears to be an open secret.
Maybe shes not worried because Marks, even inebriated, is an oak of a man. One who can employ brute force during a fight in a tiny airplane lavatory.
Marks seems impervious to alcohol, just as Neeson in action roles is impervious to criticism or praise. Like John Wayne. All you need to know is its an action movie and Neeson is in it. His mere presence tells you what it will be.
The only evidence of alcohols effect on Marks is that it softened him up enough to try to talk to his beautiful seat mate, Jen (Moore). He later enlists Jen to help root out the killer, heeding the part of his TSA training that urged awareness, in case of an emergency, of the nearest exit and civilian redhead.
Nancy, the only crew member Marks knows well, becomes a second deputy. Moore and Dockery thats a lot of grace in a confined space.
I would add Lupita Nyongo (12 Years a Slave) to the grace tally, but her role as a flight attendant is negligible. A front-runner for the supporting-actress Oscar on Sunday, Nyongo is unlikely to play such small roles again.
So what kind of Liam Neeson action movie is this, that has Moore, Lady Mary Crawley, Stoll and Nyongo in it? Doesnt he usually star opposite Hungarian TV stars, or wolves?
Its more polished than a typical Neeson thriller, mostly because of Moore (Neesons co-star in the 2009 drama Chloe) and Dockery.
Neesons action characters all have the phrase over my dead body sewn into the lining of their underwear. Moore and Dockery take up the cause as well, for the movies sake instead of their characters. They often halt the films attempted descents from B to C status (or from Neeson to Statham).
Moores calm vibe, no doubt enhanced by Jens ingestion of a few drinks and at least one pill, helps keeps the mood of Non-Stop from spiraling into hysteria.
Dockery, a TV star who can hold a big screen, drops her Downton accent for a less posh English one. But the composure remains as Nancy keeps it together for the passengers, even though her hand shakes as she pours tea.
Non-Stop always stays a step ahead of the audience. When you find out whos doing it, its not shocking but neither is it anticipated.
Were it not for the Sept. 11 allusion, Non-Stop could be a guilty pleasure. But that allusion so destructive to the films quality, so unnecessary to its plot squashes much of the pleasure.
Call The Bees Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.