Time is an enemy, especially of Bill Marks, (Liam Neeson), a boozing U.S. Air Marshal on the verge of mental collapse. Marks hates to fly, as we are humorously shown during take-off of his New York to London Non-stop flight. Observing Marks’s white-knuckles, his concerned seatmate, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), attempts to distract him by discussing the pretty blue hair ribbon he methodically winds and rewinds around his hand.
An imposing, yet vulnerable presence, Neeson’s careworn character barely remembers how to respond to such friendliness. Moments later, we see him in the airplane lavoratory, duct-taping the smoke detector, lighting up and pondering the sad state of his life.
Deftly scripted by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle, the story quickly moves to the heart of the matter when Marks begins receiving text messages from someone threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an offshore account.
Marks’s efforts to persuade the flight captain (Linus Roache) along with Marks’s fellow U.S. Marshal (Shea Whigham), to treat the threat seriously, are barely successful when Homeland Security reports back that the offshore account has been opened in Marks’s name. Given the air marshal’s reputation for drinking and overreacting, authorities on the ground order the captain to collect Marks’s badge and gun, relieving him of duty.
Now caught in a seemingly impossible trap, with nothing but his wits to rely upon, Marks seeks whatever help can be provided by his one ally, lead flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery). Along with the ones we’ve met, other passengers and crew present an assemblage of potential heroes or perpetrators — including those played by Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, and Lupita Nyong’o.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra conveys the fear that accompanies feeling like a sardine locked inside a flying tin can, but he finds creative ways to film the action within a confined space. Claustrophobic close-ups illuminate Marks’s ever-increasing distress.
The premise cleverly points out that armed Air Marshals, and indeed, all law enforcement officers, are all too human and apt to suffer from the same foibles we all do.
Thanks to televisions provided for each earphoned passenger, a number of them tune into breaking news, where they are presented with a list of reasons that Marks, whose erratic actions appear ambiguous at best, is being accused of hijacking the flight.
Though most of the film is a tense, gut-wrenching ride, the screenplay gets points for observing that we are wise to value our own instincts over those of table-pounding pundits and editorializing newscasters.