Amid the airport warnings about gels, baby milk and sharp objects, there should be a 6ft 5in silhouette of wounded bear Liam Neeson. You simply don’t want to be sharing cabin class with this gravity-stricken trouble magnet.
Last time out, in The Grey, the hulking brooder was a suicidal mess who went down in a tangle of metal in Alaska. This time, the shakes-on-a-plane paranoid is necking Scotch and pondering futility on a doomed flight from New York to London.
Don’t know why Liam is so troubled. Some 20 years ago he was earning actorly acclaim as Oskar Schindler. Since then, and not implausibly, he has earned the tag “global action star”. He’s 61. Not bad going.
That damaged snozzle (he was a boxer), sad eyes and air of vulnerability tell the back story without wasting valuable screen time is perhaps the key. Director Jaume Collet-Serra knows this for the two paired up for Unknown.
Here, he plays a bedraggled air marshal, complete with gun, badge and ability to (a) fox the smoke alarms in the toilet cubicle and (b) dispatch a foe in the same insalubrious space.
Bill Marks (Neeson), tired of living, scared of flying, receives cryptic texts from a passenger on the flight demanding the airline transfers $150million into a numbered account. Until the money is in place, a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes.
It’s familiar thriller territory but feels fresh in the hands of a director who closes the cabin doors after eight minutes of screen time then never leaves the plane.
The sense of claustrophobia and fear are palpable and halfway through, the cinema auditorium itself adds a couple of hundred more sweaty-palmed passengers to the manifest.
The first twist of many is that Marks himself becomes the prime suspect. The numbered account is in his name, his desperado narrative is played out in real-time on the news channels and his colleagues back at base change his status from “employee” to “terrorist”.
Meanwhile, the passengers, mindful of Flight 93, begin to wonder whether the time is right to say: “Let’s roll.”
Among those who drift in and out of suspicion are passenger Julianne Moore, Michelle “Downton” Dockery’s air stewardess, Scoot McNairy and Corey Stoll, all providing strong support for Neeson’s journey to hell.
Not much plot can be revealed without spoiling the surprises but the twists are effective and disconcerting and the explosive finale is fully justified by the preceding story.
There is some script clunk amid the action. Everyone has a tendency to tell, rather than suggest, their characters and Neeson’s own tragedy, hinted at by those eyes, is literally bellowed down the cabin in case we’d missed the point about his loser credentials and his need for redemption.
However, the director’s fluid direction and a genuine mystery over whodunnit (and how) place the flaws in the overhead compartments, leaving the aisles clear for a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride.