Film Review: The Commuter

Businessman is blackmailed into killing a passenger aboard a runaway train in a solid Liam Neeson vehicle.
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Liam Neeson continues his string of middlebrow action films with The Commuter, a B-movie that adds a few twists to a formula derived from 2008's Taken. Made with enough skill to paper over its ridiculous plot, it will perform decently in theatres before enjoying a long ancillary life.

Neeson's a businessman this time, insurance salesman Michael MacCauley, a married father drowning in debt who's fired at the worst possible time. But he's also an ex-cop whose skills and training will be put to the test on a train from Manhattan back to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) in Tarrytown, New York.

Onboard, Michael meets Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him $100,000 if he can spot a specific passenger before Cold Spring, about 50 miles and an hour away. If he doesn't, his family will be taken hostage. Joanna departs at the next station, but stays in touch via cellphone.

It's a smart setup that's been a suspense staple for decades, and The Commuter's three screenwriters manipulate it pretty well. Michael knows the train's regulars, so it's fairly easy for him to isolate a half-dozen or so possible suspects as he makes his way through railroad cars.

What he doesn't know is why Joanna wants that particular passenger, although it quickly becomes clear that murder is going to be the result. That doesn't give Michael very much time to save both the potential victim and his family.

Michael works his way through the suspects, who include a student, investment banker, nurse, musician and others. They are all suspicious of him, and all possibly as dangerous as the thug with a snakehead tattoo who beats him almost senseless between cars.

This is Neeson's fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, after Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, and the two have reached an understanding about what does and doesn't work in the genre. Neeson's character is decent and dogged, but also in his 60s, so he fights sparingly and suffers from his opponents' blows.

Characters are sketchy, motives don't make much sense, and plot twists are frankly absurd, but none of that matters as long as Collet-Serra delivers the action. The Commuter's fights are okay, and its big set-piece is impressive. But that comes way too early in the movie, which sags badly while a feeble conspiracy plot plays out.

Fans who want to watch Neeson brawl won't be that disappointed by The Commuter's shortcomings. They'll find the star grimly holding onto his status as the one aging-but-still-deadly tough guy you don't want to test.

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