Liam Neeson’s rise as a grizzled action star in the autumn of his career is one of Hollywood’s more intriguing trends. Compare him to certain ’80s action heroes who’ve descended into self-parody: in films like Taken and The Grey, Neeson has brought gravitas to his ageing hard-men roles.
His latest addition to the geri-action genre sees him reunite with Spanish helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in 2011’s mistaken-identity thriller Unknown. Here, the big guy plays US federal air marshal Bill Marks. Right off the bat, we know he’s got problems, when he slugs back some liquor in the airport parking lot.
Fortunately, he’s not flying the plane. But things swiftly go awry after he boards, in New York, a transatlantic jumbo bound for London. No sooner has he stowed his hand luggage than he receives a text: unless a whopping $150 million is deposited in an off-shore account, one passenger will die every 20 minutes.
It’s a set-up Hitchcock would be proud of, with a plot that keeps the unseen extortionist one step ahead of both Marks and us. After the first victim turns out to be Marks’ fellow marshal – killed by Marks himself in a masterful piece of manipulation by his persecutor – things get worse when it’s revealed that the bank account awaiting the pay off is in our hero’s name.
With those on the ground suddenly believing he’s the terrorist, Marks has no choice but to bully his way through the manifest and try and clear his name. Enlisting the help of Julianne Moore’s passenger and Michelle Dockery’s air hostess, Marks can’t even be sure of them, just as we can’t fully trust him.
Collet-Serra cranks up the tension and keeps it hanging at 35,000 feet – and for two-thirds this is real edge-of-your-seat stuff as you’re left trying to figure out how it all fits together. Neeson keeps us involved, while the support cast is also pleasing – from Linus Roache’s pilot to 12 Years A Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o’s trolley dolly and Scoot McNairy’s passenger.
But just as the film begins to make its descent, it goes wildly off course. For all the fiendish ingenuity behind Marks’ torment, the explanations and motives are utterly lame. Likewise, the emotional journey, as Marks finds redemption for a past emotional trauma, is enough to make you reach for the sick bag. Rarely has a film squandered such promise.