The Commuter is a straight-up action product that will be familiar to viewers of any of the previous collaborations by its star, Liam Neeson, and its director, Jaume Collet-Serra. As in their 2014 Non-Stop, Neeson's character here, an implausible life-insurance salesman named MacCauley, finds himself sucked into a loopy plot in a tightly confined space (in the earlier film an airplane, here a commuter train running from New York City to upstate suburbia). The movie has little of the neo-Hitchcockian flair of the duo's 2011 Unknown, but it does have Neeson, the most sympathetic of middle-aged action stars, and it could be his most madly convoluted outing to date—although that's probably too large a claim.
There's no point in nitpicking a movie like this; it delivers exactly what genre enthusiasts would expect: plentiful tension and violence, with occasional sprinklings of sentiment. MacCauley is a 60-year-old man with a wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman) and a steady stream of bills (mortgage, tuition) that's threatening to bury him. In his Manhattan office one day, we see him suddenly getting fired by his young boss for no good reason. Out on the street, disoriented, he ducks into a bar to contemplate this unwelcome development, and is approached by Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), his old partner in the NYPD. (Yes, MacCauley is an ex-cop, which'll soon come in handy when he's called upon to demonstrate a facility with handguns and head-cracking.) Next, MacCauley's old commander (Sam Neill) turns up, acting oddly; Murphy natters on, saying things like, "That's yer Irish pride talkin'." MacCauley is soon out of there.
Making his way to Grand Central Station, he boards his usual homebound train and is quickly joined by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She tells MacCauley there's a bag of cash hidden in a nearby restroom, and MacCauley can have it on the condition that he find the one person on the train who doesn't belong there (whatever that might mean), and plant a little GPS unit on this individual. After he does that, she says, there'll be even more cash. And what will happen to the tagged person, MacCauley wonders. He shouldn't have asked.
That MacCauley doesn't burst out laughing at this ridiculous proposition is a tribute to Neeson's mastery of the straight face. Soon MacCauley is stalking the aisles of the train's various cars, giving the squint-eye to each of his fellow passengers. There's a guy with a suspicious guitar case, a girl with a suspicious bag, and a monumentally snotty Wall Street dickhead (Shazad Latif) whom you'd hope MacCauley would shoot just to make the world a better place. Our man is also called upon to mete out a furious beatdown or two—why else are we here?—and to take continuous cell-phone calls from Joanna, who somehow seems to be aware of every move he makes on the barreling train. (At one point, when he discovers a corpse crammed into a maintenance crawlspace, the dead guy's phone rings, and—yes—it's her again.)
The story is preposterous, as we see. But the director keeps it chugging along. And he pulls off a couple of pretty great scenes – a brutal hatchet-and-knife fight that had me wincing, and some furious runaway-train acrobatics, with MacCauley hanging on for dear life. Inevitably, there's also a grand CGI conflagration, but it's actually pretty wow, as those things go.
These late-period Neeson movies (including the Taken films) pretty much constitute a genre of their own by now. Even casual fans may not find a whole lot of surprises in this one, but they probably won't have many regrets about sitting through it, either. Don't know about everybody else, though.
Photo Credit: Lionsgate