Let's say you get together with a few friends and order a pizza. Everyone eats a few slices and seems pretty full. The only problem is that there is one leftover slice that's sitting in the box waiting for someone to claim it. Now, you know that you want this slice. You also know that no one else wants it. You could just grab it without saying anything and it would probably be fine. But you know what? You still go to the trouble of asking everybody if you can have it. Yeah, its sorta unnecessary - but it's also the right thing to do. Sometimes you just have to go through a formality because you know that if you don't you're gonna come across like a dick.
Now, there's no pizza eating in the new Liam Neeson action thriller Non-stop, but the film does make a similar pro forma gesture to make sure that it's hero doesn't come across like a dick. Namely: it makes sure that to show that his character Bill Marks feels bad when he murders someone.
I realize that saying that sounds slightly insane. After all, remorse is such a fundamental human emotion that only a serial killer would describe it as a "pro forma" response to a violent deed. However, that's in the real world; it's much different in an action movie. In the real world, a dead body brings up a wealth of complicated emotions, but in an action movie that death is only supposed to create excitement. In the context of an action movie it's a given that the hero is going to kill people, and we want him to kill people...
...But we should want him to at least pretend that he feels bad about killing that person, because otherwise we're basically rooting for a sociopath. It's surprising to me how many modern action movies don't bother to take that pro forma step. Even though Captain Kirk is on a mission to spread peaceful ideas throughout the universe in Star Trek Into Darkness he never hesitates to shoot someone to death; in Batman Begins Bruce Wayne rams his bat-tank through several squads of cop-cars without blinking an eye; and none of the Fast and the Furious crew give a single damn about collateral damage of their insane car chases. We've entered into an era where it's fully acceptable for our action stars to be unrepentant monsters who are incapable of feeling bad if an innocent bystander dies on their watch. So when I saw that Bill Marks seemed bummed that he had to break someone's neck I actually felt a little bit of relief. Finally, an action hero who was going to at least pretend to have a human emotion when he was doing something superhuman!
Non-Stop has a simple gimmick: an alcoholic air marshal is sitting comfortably in first class on a plane when he gets a text informing him that unless a hundred and fifty million dollars is put into a Swiss bank account passengers are going to start dying in twenty minute intervals. He has to figure out who is texting him and whether or not they are a credible threat, but he doesn't have a lot of time to do it, nor does he have a lot of tools at his disposal, since he's 30,000 feet in the air and surrounded by sleeping civilians. In short order the threat is revealed to be real, and eventually he finds out who is responsible, and ultimately (SPOILER ALERT) he makes them real dead.
It's a solid little genre movie. I could praise it's script, which really makes the most of the limited setting, or the direction, which is competent, but lets be honest: Non-Stop's biggest asset is definitely Liam Neeson. What he brings to the table can't be underestimated, because if he didn't turn this generic cop character into a real person than the whole movie would turn into kitsch. Every detail we know about Bill Marks is a cliche - he has a drinking problem and an ex wife and etc. - but Liam Neeson has enough gravity on screen that you can forgive the movie it's generic touches. And he doesn't just have that gravity when he's delivering a big emotional speech to the scared crowd that he's protecting, or when he's getting into a fight to the death - he has it when he's by himself, when he's quietly thinking about what he's just been forced to do.
I think that matters. Yes, it's great to have an authoritative ass-kicker as the lead character in your movie, but it's even better to have an authoritative human being as the lead character in your action movie. By giving Marks little moments of dignity - by having him ask someone "please don't make me do this" before a fight - this movie allows him to be a hero and not an an angry vigilante or a vengeful dick. There's a real difference between liking him while he does something cool and merely liking that cool thing, and I much prefer the former over the latter.
There have been a lot of think pieces over the last few years about why Liam Neeson has had a surprisingly robust career as an ass kicker so late in his life. There are a lot of plausible explanations: he picked some good scripts, his timing was right... However, I think his secret weapon is that he's coming at it from a less macho place than a lot of the other actors who tried to pick up Schwarzenegger's crown. Jason Statham is convincing as a bad ass, and I like the Rock in general - but off the top of my head I can't think of a single time that they seemed conflicted about the violence they were committing; their movies almost always try to paint them as robotic superhumans. In contrast, Neeson's years of dramatic acting have taught him to emphasize the humanity of his characters. As such, you get a sense that the man he is playing is defined by more than grim rage and his ability to end a stranger's life without breaking a sweat - he's defined by his desire to transcend his failures to become a hero. But a real hero, one who kills because he must, not because he can. I really appreciate that he goes the extra mile to make his characters seem like ethical people, and I don't think I'm the only one. After all, I'm not the only one who would ask permission before taking that last slice.