'The Commuter' Review: Liam Neeson Gets Taken For A Ride

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So "The Commuter", which reteams him for the fourth time with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, may be one of our last chances to see Neeson kick some butt. But that's not to deny the transient pleasures of "The Commuter", a film that enthusiastically puts the humble passenger vehicle through nearly as many mechanical acrobatics as any "Fast and Furious" hot rod, in the process gifting us with the line, "Between the train and the people, I always knew it would be the train". It's not going to launch a catchphrase and a series of movies like "Taken", but it has all of the elements that you want - Liam Neeson as an old dude with fantastic skills, frantically trying to solve a mystery and beating the tar out of some baddies in the process. Desperate times, desperate measures-you know the drill.

That's not necessarily a problem in the Collet-Serra Cinematic Universe, but "The Commuter's" breakneck incoherence - not to mention a generally dour demeanor, shorter on incidental humor than most of the helmer's work - makes it a notch less fun than those previous ex-trash-aganzas. His trains run on time, even if - especially in "The Commuter" - a rush-hour's worth of implausibility eventually wrecks the thrill.

Michael (Neeson) is a middle-class family man, his happy, suburban life detailed in a brilliant opening montage of mornings at home and on the way to work, on the train he has taken for 10 years into Manhattan to sell life insurance. One day, a woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him on his way home and corners him with a mysterious offer. Michael says he was sacked "after 10 years" once every 10 seconds. With his savings depleted by the 2008 financial crisis and college tuition coming soon for his high-school graduate son, McCauley's panic is palpable. Early in The Commuter, there is a tracking shot following the length of the train that occasionally stops to focus on particular passengers so we know who to suspect may be Joanna's target.

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"And that's something they do for me because they feel it's what's right and fair", she said. The gaps in the story's logic aren't to be minded. He has until the Cold Spring stop to do it. But then again, even the Feds deserve a bit of antiquing and a brisk hike. What's more, whenever Mike, who is somehow being watched, tries to wriggle out of his task by notifying the authorities or seeking help, someone on the train dies. "The Commuter" was preceded by "Unknown" (2011, Neeson vs. identity theft in Berlin), "Non-Stop" (2014, Neeson vs. murderous extortionists on a transatlantic flight) and "Run All Night" (2015, Neeson vs. the mob, and the pavement). It's the kind of inaccuracy that will cause untold swarms of strap-hangers to throw their MetroCards at the screen. The plot mechanics don't matter almost so much as the visceral feelings of strength and relevance that a film like this imbues, and sometimes it's nice just to get caught up in a stupid fantasy. This time instead of walking back and forth on a train, Neeson has to walk back and forth through every auto of a train like a world beaten and put upon Poirot. He is starting to look his age, which sort of makes the movie more believable in a way at first, because it's clear that this guy is rusty. As before, Neeson is a lone warrior trying to stay decent in a fallen world.

The old equation of man-plus-locomotive has been a dependable one for the movies since Buster Keaton rode the rails in "The General". In other words, the plotting is simple and contrived, but it mostly serves as a shell in which to frame some over-the-top train-based action beats, so if that's what you've signed up to see, you're most definitely in luck. Two stars out of four.