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NON-STOP

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C

A committed cast and crew do their best to keep this airplane thriller aloft, but ultimately a ludicrous premise and multiple plot inanities lead to a crash-landing, literally and figuratively. Director Jaume Collet-Serra tries to conceal the screenplay’s deficiencies with action reflecting the title, and Liam Neeson invests the familiar character of a world-weary fellow who snaps out of the doldrums when circumstances require with a dose of personality. But ultimately their yeoman efforts aren’t quite enough.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who, as we’re formed in a couple of short-hand introductory scenes, is both an alcoholic and an emotional wreck as a result of events that will be revealed later on. Boarding a flight to London, he interacts with a number of the passengers while merely observing others before settling into a business class seat beside Jen (Julianne Moore), a harried woman the writers sketch so brusquely we never even learn her profession. Within minutes of takeoff he’s received an e-mail demanding that the carrier pay a $150,000,000 ransom into his bank account or he’ll beginning killing people on the plane at a rate of one every twenty minutes.

Thus starts much frenzy as Marks desperately tries to unmask the perpetrator—sometimes employing rather aggressive methods—even as the villain contrives to make him the prime suspect. Of course, the plane is full of red herrings. In addition to Jen, who seems helpful but might just be pretending, there’s Bill’s fellow air marshal (Anson Mount); a bald bruiser who turns out to be a cop (Corey Stoll); a shifty schoolteacher (Scoot McNairy); an abrasive yuppie (Nate Parker) who happens to be a software specialist; and, just for the sake of obviousness, a Muslim with a carry-on bag (Omar Metwally). (One presumes that the little girl traveling alone, played by Quinn McColgan, shouldn’t be considered a serious suspect.) And that’s not even considering the crew—captain (Linus Roach) and co-pilot Jason Butler Harner) as well as flight attendants (Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong’o, the latter in a throwaway part). After all, the mysterious caller knows an awful lot about Bill’s personal demons.

Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle engage in a virtual maelstrom of misdirection in their effort to keep viewers from detecting who the bad guy is (although , to be honest, your very first guess might well turn out to be the correct one, especially after a twist at a crucial moment that makes little sense otherwise). And when the revelation of motive (not the one you’re initially led to believe) finally does come, it turns out to be preposterous and incredible—not to mention tasteless. The fact that the script never bothers to explain precisely how all the dastardly deeds that keep Bill’s head spinning during the flight are pulled off seems a mild offense by comparison.

Collet-Serra aims to paper over all the plot holes by constantly pushing ahead in the hope you won’t notice them. He’s helped in this by Neeson, whose mere presence is enough to convince the audience that Marks is not only being framed but will ultimately save his charges despite the long odds against him. Expert work by cinematographer Flavio Labiano, who employs the confines of the aircraft cabin to good effect (particularly in a sequence involving a nasty brawl in a lavatory) and editor Jim May—as well as a pounding score by John Ottman—help to create some turbulence to mask the lapses of narrative logic, too. Unfortunately, apart from Neeson the cast is pretty poorly used, with even Moore, who gets the most screen time, reduced to little more than the rote part of a helpmate who might not be what she seems.

With a film like this one has to be willing to suspend disbelief for the duration of the flight. Unfortunately, despite the professionalism of execution, “Non-Stop” takes credibility past the breaking point. In terms of danger-on-a-plane scenarios it’s superior to “Flightplan” and “Turbulence” but not as goofily entertaining as “Red Eye,” “Air Force One” or even “Con Air.”

But at least there are no snakes on this plane—except of the human variety.

POMPEII

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The makers of “Pompeii” might not know much about history or volcanology, but they appear to be well versed in the conventions of Hollywood romantic melodrama. Their movie might be set on land rather than a doomed ocean liner, but it basically recycles the plot of “Titanic,” with Mount Vesuvius taking the place of the killer glacier. It can hardly be said that the romance between youngsters from two different worlds is in quite the same league as the one Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet shared. The CGI effects are fun to watch, though, especially in the IMAX 3D format. And so while the picture might be a pleasure only in the guiltiest of senses, if you’re willing to leave your brain in the lobby it can be giddily amusing as an exercise in wretched excess.

The hero is Milo (Kit Harrington), whom we first meet as a little boy in northern Britain played by Dylan Schombing, who in 62 A.D. witnesses the entire Celtic tribe to which he belongs—master horsemen, we’re told—massacred by nasty Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, whose nose perhaps inspired the name of his character, which can mean a beak) and his icily murderous lieutenant Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Seventeen years later, Milo has become the most fearsome gladiator in the provincial capital of Londinium, dispatching a quartet of opponents with little more than a couple of knives, a stare of steely determination, and a beautifully sculptured hairdo.

Milo’s talent for mayhem catches the eye of Pompeii’s leading sports impresario Graecus (Joe Pingue), who hustles him off home for a career there. While trudging down the length of Italy to his new home, Milo shows that his family’s skill at horse-whispering has been passed down to him by mercifully killing an animal that’s gone lame while carrying a litter transporting lovely Roman aristocrat Cassia (Emily Browning). Cassia, who’s returning disgusted to Pompeii after a stay in decadent Rome (and, as it happens, is a horse-lover herself, with a favorite steed awaiting her at home), feels the wounded sensitivity in the handsome boy’s soul, and the two share longing glances that signal their love-at-first-sight.

In Pompeii the picture enters a modified “Spartacus” phase, with Milo earning grudging admiration from the resident champ of the arena, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a noble Nubian who’s one win away from being granted his freedom—something the gladiators’ brutal trainer Bellator (Currie Graham) aims to prevent. And who should arrive for the imminent festival of bloodshed but Senator Corvus, still accompanied by malevolent Proculus, as an emissary of Emperor Titus. (Curiously, the script suggests that Titus has allowed a culture of corruption to flourish in Rome, though historians of the day actually portrayed him as a paragon of a ruler.) Corvus has come south to consider investing in a massive urban redevelopment plan for Pompeii proposed by Cassia’s father Severus (Jared Harris). But it turns out that his throwing money into the venture is contingent on being given the hand of Cassia—something that both the girl and her mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) find a revolting idea.

Happily—and unhappily—nature intervenes to undermine the marital negotiations. Vesuvius has been burping and belching, even occasionally swallowing up people like Cassia’s horse steward Felix (Dalmar Abuzeid). (The mount’s occasional outbursts play a role in these early reels not unlike the one Bruce the Shark’s fin had in “Jaws,” presaging the horrors to come.) And after a splashy arena sequence in which Milo and Atticus join forces to annihilate a bunch of gladiators dressed up as Roman legionaries who were supposed to kill them in remembrance of Corvus’ victory over the Celts, all heck breaks loose as Vesuvius erupts, bringing disaster to the city. In the ensuing pandemonium climax piles up upon climax. But among the more important ones Milo must rescue Cassia from the crumbling seaside villa in which she’s been imprisoned, Atticus will have to face off against Proculus, and Milo will of course do battle with Corvus to save his woman and avenge his family honor.

All of this is the sheerest goofiness, marked by stilted acting and laughably banal dialogue courtesy of hack director Paul W.S. Anderson, who most recently delivered the overstuffed bastardization of “The Three Musketeers” featuring his wife Milla Jovovich (also the star of his “Resident Evil” franchise). And while the pure camp level isn’t quite high enough to elevate it to the so-bad-it’s good category, the forty or so minutes of eye-popping, super-destructive visuals that close the movie are undeniably fun to watch especially since they’re riddled with so many moments of juvenile heroics (as when Atticus pauses to rescue an endangered child) and others of villains getting their just deserts. Though you’re hardly going to appreciate the performances of glowering Harington, vacuous Browning, or even sneering Sutherland (Akinnuoye-Agbaje comes off best), it’s difficult to resist the contributions of the behind-the-scenes crew—production designer Paul Denham Austerberry and costume designer Wendy Partridge, but especially the visual effects unit supervised by Dennis Berardi.

The upshot is that while “Pompeii” is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie, if you’re in the right frame of mind it can provide a couple of hours of brainless amusement.