On the Fifth Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
A Hijacking at 50,000 Feet
In the 1990s, after the success of both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, just about every action star had to be in their own cops-against-terrorists films. Where the early-to-mid 1980s were focused on foreign attackers and soldier going in to take out external threats (think every Arnold and Stallone movie from the period, really), domestic terrorists came to the forefront and out heroes suddenly had to take out greedy dicks just looking for a quick pay day )who didn't care how many people they killed in the process).
When you think about it, it's actually a fascinating evolution for cinema that reflects the national opinions of politics at the time. Where the early 1980s cinema goers wanted to celebrate the "rah rah America" vibes as the U.S. took on (and "defeated") the Soviets, once the Cold War was over we turned our sights to a rejection of the yuppie mentality. Our threats were people with different skin colors but guys in three-piece suits that kept stealing all our money. That's why Die Hard, in part, resonated as well as it did, and why so many other movies desperately wanted to be "like Die Hard, but..."
I really wanted to cover Passenger 57 for the "Five Days of Die Hard" since that film not only launched Wesley Snipes as a big-time action hero (and gave us the line "always bet on Black"), but it was also that star's "like Die Hard but on a plane". However, I just realized I don't own Passenger 57, so instead I've going with another hijacking on a plane film, the 2014 Liam Neeson entry, Non-Stop.
Neeson's oeuvre is interesting in and of itself. Although the actor was never above doing action films, such as the Sam Raimi superhero flick Darkman, he gained a reputation for doing heavy dramas after his turns in such films as Schindler's List and the 1998 Les Miserable. Hell, even his turn as Qui-Gon Jin in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace felt against type for what we all "knew" about the actor.
That, of course, changed when Neeson starred as a man "with a particular set of skills" in Taken, lending his lead-man chops and dramatic abilities to what was, frankly, a pretty cheesy action flick, elevating the form. Suddenly, every leading man (and quite a few leading women) had to have their own "like Taken but..." Every action film featured a grizzled once-dramatic actor doing their turn with "a particular set of skills" against waves of nameless bad guys (and that lasted right up until every movie had to be like John Wick).
The 2014 action film Non-Stop feels like the perfect blend of Die Hard and Taken. We have Neeson's character, Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who drinks too much, secretly smokes on planes, and is 12 years in to a long, messy divorce (in part because his daughter died at the age of 5 from leukemia). He's basically one fuck-up away from being fired, and just about everyone around him knows it, too. And then someone hijacks his plane.
It's not as cut-and-dried as the terrorists in a classic Die Hard, mind you -- there's no Hans Gruber giving out charismatic demands from a penthouse office. Instead, Bill gets a text (on his federally-issued air marshal phone) telling him that someone will die in 20 minutes unless $150 Mil is transfered to s specific account. Bill tries to warn the other air marshal on the plane, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), but they get antsy and eventually attack Bill because, lo-and-behold, they were smuggling cocaine on the plane. They aren't the terrorist, though; that's someone else, and the more Bill searches around, the more agitated he gets. Suddenly the TSA thinks Bill is the terrorist (in part because the account is in his name!) and Bill has to do everything he can to clear his name and save as many people on the plane as he can.
So what we have is a grizzled old cop with nothing to lose (classic Die Hard) dealing with a terrorist situation where the external authorities are no use (also Die Hard) and our hero is the only person that can save everyone involved (wait, that's Die Hard, too). It's just because of Neeson's involvement that everyone equates this to his Taken films, but this really fits nicely into all the films we've covered for the "Five Days of Die Hard". It may have come twenty years after the peak of that series but that doesn't change how nicely it fits in.
Let's not undersell this: the movie works because of Liam Neeson. Another actor in this role wouldn't have both the charisma and gravitas to make you take this drunken, but effective, air marshal seriously and actually like him in the process. Willis could have done it back in the day, but current-era Willis (who always phones in performance) wouldn't have been able to pull off this character. This film needed a strong heavy, and Neeson was perfect for the task.
The movie gets by a lot on the power of its mystery. This is a twisty tale that keeps you guessing, using modern technology to tell a nicely updated version of the Die Hard formula (it's certainly much smarter with its tech-terrorism than Live Free or Die Hard. The terrorist is smart, having contingencies on contingencies, and it keeps the audience guessing so you never know who the real bad guy is.
Or, well, that would be the case except for one major issue: this film has way too many stars in it. Having Julianne Moore as the passenger sitting next to Neeson is fine -- she acts as a kind of conscripted helper for the film, giving this a bit of the buddy-cop interaction from the latter Die Hard films -- but at the same time it's easy to pick out possible bad guys because the film won't use just some random extra as our villain. The film needs a star, so you can look at everyone on the plane and pick out the three or four likely people. That dulls the mystery a fair bit so that, when the big villain reveal comes, you're already expecting it just a little.
The writing is smart, don't get me wrong. it's well acted, funny and crowd-pleasing in places, and all very well paced. But the fact that the film just has to have recognizable stars outside of Neeson and Moore, it dulls the mystery just a bit. It's blunts it, making it less effective, in a way. On paper the story works perfectly, it's just the way the Hollywood machine works that the film isn't quite as effective as it should be.
Still, even then, the film is great fun. It's tense and taught for much of its run-time, and even after the terrorist is revealed (which I won't spoil any further), there's still a great climax involving the fate of the plane itself. It all works so well, grounded by Neeson and crafted into a pretty solid action film. No one really talks about this film anymore, as it did come out after a series of Taken films, let alone long after the "like Die Hard but..." genre fell out of favor. But don't sleep on this one; it's a solid film that will please just about any action fans, or Neeson fans, or both.