Over the course of a few mid-budget genre entertainments, Serra has transformed himself into one of Hollywood's premier craftsmen. His movies operate as efficient thrill-machines, yet there is undoubtedly more on offer if you want it; in Non-Stop it's not too difficult to detect an allegory for modern America and its troubled relationship with its security services. But it works perfectly well as an action-thriller too, giving Liam Neeson more to do than the Taken franchise does.
Neeson possesses an air of soulful melancholy and Serra has utilised that both here and in Unknown, in each film pushing Neeson's protagonist through a sort of identity crisis before he can really indulge in teh sort of righteous ass-kicking his fanbase presumably expect.
Here he plays Marks, an Air Marshall with numerous problems - debts, alcoholism, guilt over the death of his daughter a decade before. What should be a routine New York to London flight is derailed when Marks starts receiving texts from a mysterious passenger who knows an awful lot about him. Demanding $150 Million be wired to an account, the mystery man tells Marks that if he does not co-operate then a passenger will die every 20 minutes.
Marks then has to figure out who his opponent is, keep the passengers safe, and keep himself together, while the stakes keep on escalating; the plan is seemingly to frame Marks, and his own actions don't help him prevent that - he stumbles from mistake to disaster while the media decides he is a hijacker and the passengers begin to panic.
Serra is excellent on the claustrophobia of his setting. This is a red-eye flight and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano lights it in purples and blues. The rows of seats become as much a plot point as a visual motif - they obscure the actions of passengers from Marks, and one great shot pans from his anxious, doubtful face to a sea of eyes on faces turned and peering at him over seat-backs.
The action is sparse here; this is more of a pure thriller, with lots of slow-burning suspense, but Serra pulls off a couple of fine set-pieces, most obviously the brutal fist-ight inside the onboard toilet.
The final act is undoubtedly silly, as the villains and their motivations are revealed, but by then its too late and most audiences will be hooked. Neeson is excellent and the supporting cast are all fine, but Serra is the real star here, taking such unpromising material and making a rousingly skillful entertainment of it.