Liam Neeson in Non-Stop

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano are both Spanish, which might explain why Non-Stop, the new Liam Neeson thriller, feels more like recent genre entertainment from Spain than from Hollywood: the filmmaking is playful without feeling jokey, the narrative stuffed with fun complications. Like Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007), J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), or Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 (2009), Non-Stop exhibits showmanship in its construction and execution alike—one gets the impression the filmmakers had good fun putting it together.

On a nonstop flight from New York to London, a U.S. air marshal (Neeson) receives a text message from a terrorist threatening to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a designated bank account. The setup suggests a game, with clearly defined space and time limits (all the action takes place inside the plane over the duration of the flight) and certain rules to be followed (Neeson can communicate with the terrorist by text but can’t trace his or her number). Indeed the movie proceeds somewhat like a game, as though screenwriters John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle challenged themselves to imagine as many different complications as they could within the set parameters. One of the most inspired comes early on, when Neeson’s character is revealed to be an alcoholic and a chronic liar. Might the investigator turn out to be the culprit, as in Agatha Christie’s Curtain?

Collet-Serra and Labiano embellish this tricky narrative with visual tricks of their own. Some are deliberately old-fashioned, like the rickety dolly shots down the aisles of the plane; some are state-of-the-art, like the David Fincheresque CG shot that leads us out one window of the plane and back in through another. (Labiano has shot three films for Spanish cult director Alex de la Iglesia, whose work is littered with baroque camera movements.) Collet-Serra also finds creative ways to illustrate the characters’ sense of confinement: sometimes the text messages appear onscreen, blocking out portions of the frame and giving the impression that the hero is trapped between the sentences. An early fight scene, set in one of the lavatories, is a little marvel of editing, each decisive movement presented from a different camera angle.

Holding everything together is Neeson’s sturdy acting, one of the few reliable pleasures in current English-language action cinema. The 61-year-old star has made at least a half-dozen actioners since Taken (2008) became an unexpected smash; like a Hollywood star in the studio era, he’s created, through prolific, unpretentious work, a recognizable screen persona that different filmmakers can tweak to different ends. Non-Stop doesn’t deepen this persona as Joe Carnahan’s The Grey did, but that’s a minor complaint, given the trove of small pleasures here.