Chuck Koplinski: Actor's presence nearly trumps 'Non-Stop' flaws

Chuck Koplinski: Actor's presence nearly trumps 'Non-Stop' flaws

Liam Neeson continues to save the day in Jaume Collet-Serra's "Non-Stop," a claustrophobic thriller that, if nothing else lives up to its title.

Never before has a film been so stagnant in setting yet brisk in the way it tells its tale as it hits the ground running and barely stops to catch its breath. However, there's a method to this madness as Collet-Serra knows that the screenplay, with three credited writers, would never hold water if the audience were given the opportunity to try to put all of its narrative pieces together. More than a few lapses in logic would rear their ugly heads, but the director is hoping that if Neeson can glower, punch and shoot often enough, we won't mind that the movie pulls a regrettable third act fade.

Neeson is Federal Air Marshall Bill Marks, whom we immediately identify as a man haunted by his past. The actor's haggard look and the fact that he starts his day with a couple of shots of whisky in his coffee are dead giveaways, but of course, our man-in-the-air perseveres while we're safe in the knowledge his woes will be revealed in time.

He boards a flight from New York City to London, and once it's out over the Atlantic, he begins to get cryptic texts on a secure line from someone on board threatening to kill a fellow passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to an offshore account. While the plane's pilot (Linus Roache) scoffs at this threat, Marks is on guard, though he's not quite sharp enough to prevent the first killing, which occurs in a most unexpected manner.

From then on, it's a game of beat-the-clock as the timer on Marks' wristwatch is reset after each death, and he attempts to outwit the unknown killer before he strikes again.

The film contains the usual assortment of shady characters about whom we're given just enough information to suspect them as the culprit. Chief among them is Corey Stoll ("House of Cards") as suspicious passenger Austin Reilly, the rude but tech savvy Travis Mitchell (Corey Hawkins) and even Marks' fellow Air Marshal Jack Hammond (Anson Mount). Of course, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) is an immediate person-of-interest when she insists on having a window seat. The script is full of unexplained actions such as this, as every vague text, furtive look or pregnant pause carries the added weight of possibly hiding a vital secret.

To his credit, Collet-Serra does a fine job of ratcheting up the tension repeatedly as he has the opportunity to do so again and again whenever Marks is required to reset the 20-minute countdown. He also uses an interesting device in which he displays the cryptic text messages that bombard our hero on screen so that no time is wasted with shots of the phone's screen, facilitating a continued flow of action. One of the nicer moments occurs when Marks is in a particularly tight spot, and the messages are orbiting around him, underscoring the fact that he has been hemmed in by the threat these missives have conveyed. Pretty neat

However, Collet-Serra's pizzazz and Neeson's presence can't trump the ludicrous twists that are unveiled as the final countdown in the form of a bomb's timer ticking its way down to zero. Once the bad guys are revealed and their motives explained, the phrase "You've got to be kidding me," is likely to spring to mind.

This, as well as some particularly heavy-handed moments as the plane makes its final descent, undo a great deal of good work from the cast and the director, all of whom should have refused to board this particular cinematic flight until an intelligent conclusion was concocted.

'Non-Stop' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Linus Roache, Corey Stoll, Anson Mount, Scott McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong'o, Shea Wingham and Corey Hawkins.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; produced by Alex Heineman, Andrew Rona and Joel Silver; screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle.

A Universal Pictures release. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Tim's Vermeer" a gentle tale of obsession. (3 stars)

Ahab had Moby Dick, Javert had Jean Valjean, and Tim Jenison had his Vermeer. All three are examples of men driven by obsession, reduced to living with tunnel vision in which their purpose is to achieve one goal and one goal only, while their sense of normality is obliterated as some sort of collateral damage.

In the documentary "Tim's Vermeer," produced by Penn Jillette and directed by his partner in illusion Teller, we witness Jenison, an inventor and millionaire with nothing but time on his hands, undertake a project that lasted 1,825 days, the result of which made strides toward solving one of the art world's great mysteries.

Thankfully, Jenison's journey does not end as tragically as Ahab or Javert's, but it's still an all-consuming undertaking that, while never putting him in mortal danger, pushes this man to the limits of his patience and perhaps his sanity.

In a rapid-fire manner, the film tells us that as a graphic artist, Jenison has always been fascinated with the way visual images are composed no matter what the medium. It stands to reason that he would be drawn to the work of Johannes Vermeer, an artist whose photorealistic paintings represented a quantum leap in the way painters could capture the nuances of life. The artist had little in the way of formal training, and no preparatory sketches for any of his works have been discovered, suggesting that the man was either an artistic savant or had developed a revolutionary method using lenses and a camera obscura to facilitate an elaborate method in which he could copy real events in the most minute detail.

Inspired by a book by artist David Hockney, Jenison sets out to prove his theory true by building upon it with an invention of his own and recreating the exact circumstances Vermeer worked under.

Jenison has the time and money to build a room in which he could recreate every element from the painting he sets out to replicate, "The Music Lesson," as if it were a stage set, while grinding down pigments to make his own paints as well as fashioning his own crude lenses just as Vermeer would have done. After spending nearly five years prepping the project, he sets out to paint his own Vermeer, and the results are startling, considering Jenison has had no formal artistic training much like the original artist.

While the movie is fascinating and what Jenison proves ultimately carries some weight, the inventor himself is a bit of a bland protagonist. To be sure, he's a genius, and his tenacity is to be admired, but you keep waiting for him to crack under the pressure of it all or at the very least throw a hellacious fit of frustration.

Nothing of the sort comes to pass, which is unfortunate as the film could use a bit more drama. However, there's no question that what remains is a compelling pursuit of knowledge even if the pursuer has the charisma of a cardboard box.

Costner's cool saves "3 Days to Kill." (3 stars)

McG's "3 Days to Kill" is the sort of film that's hard to defend, yet I couldn't help but be entertained by its odd pastiche of elements and dark sense of humor, both of which helped add a sly twist on what otherwise would have been a pedestrian effort. Featuring a nicely understated turn from Kevin Costner, the film is buoyed by an interesting premise that gets a great deal of mileage out of repeatedly putting its main character in situations where he's forced to switch roles at the drop of a hat, going from ruthless spy to concerned father, at the most inopportune times.

Costner is Ethan Renner, a veteran CIA agent who has retired after finding out he has brain cancer. He decides to use what time he has left to attempt to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and their daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld). That he's met with less than open arms doesn't surprise him, but Renner perseveres and is soon on his way to rebuilding the bridges that his constant absenteeism laid to waste.

However, this family reunion hits a snag when our hero is contacted by Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), a CIA executive who wants him to come out of retirement to track down two terrorists who got away when his final mission went off the rails. Of course, Renner declines the offer, until he's informed there's an experimental drug that could put his cancer in remission that will be at his disposal if he agrees to play ball. You can see where this is headed.

The film is nothing more than a collection of gimmicks that for one baffling reason or another work. The drug Renner is given is effective, but the side effects are a killer. Unless he keeps his blood pressure down, he suffers from hallucinations and debilitating headaches, which is a bit difficult when you're in hot pursuit of two killers through the streets of Paris. Of course, once Renner is back in his family's good graces, Christine leaves town on business for three days, leaving him to hold down the fort, catering to Zoey's teen angst, all the while trying to track down his targets without her knowing about it. Then there's the matter of the African family that's squatting in Renner's apartment that he can't evict until winter has passed, as France has strict laws protecting them. The culture clash that results is played for effective laughs, yet in the end, it helps the agent get his priorities straight.

None of this is to be taken seriously, and the only reason the film works is that Costner effectively plays the straight man throughout. He pulls off an effective Buster Keaton here, stoic, calm yet effective as personal and professional chaos rains down upon him at every turn. The actor's stillness holds him in good stead here, and he's equally good when Renner's facade breaks, and he shares a genuine moment of concern or a laugh with his wife and daughter.

He also shows a subtle comic flair when his systematic torture of reluctant informants is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from Zoey, and he's forced to solicit advice from his victims as to what to do. Costner knows he's the one consistent human element in a movie filled with cartoonish characters, and the actor is obviously enjoying himself in a way we've rarely seen him do on screen.

In the end, Costner does what every leading man or woman is required to do, and that's connect with the audience. After all, who in this modern day and age hasn't suffered from trying to juggle their career with their familial responsibilities?

The actor's performance and some well-choreographed action sequences from McG, including an imaginative car chase through the streets of Paris, make "3 Days to Kill" an entertaining diversion that requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most films, but at least gets points for trying to put a new spin on an old formula.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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