As far as Liam Neeson’s brand of action thrillers goes, “The Commuter” is neither the best nor the worst.
It is for the most part solidly entertaining, with an engaging mystery that creates palpable tension and a sense of urgency throughout.
It does eventually go off the rails in its final act, but until that point the film more or less works.
What’s it about?
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a 60-year-old insurance salesman who finds himself in a moral conundrum at the worst possible time. While on the same commuter train out of New York City heading for home that he’s traveled on every work day for 20 years, a mysterious woman (Vera Fermiga) sits across from him and coyly suggests that he would be rewarded a large sum of money for performing a small task.
On any other day, the devoted family man and former cop would never even consider the offer, but Michael’s had the kind of day that makes a man in his financial position vulnerable. He makes his choice, and soon thereafter discovers that he’s trapped and stands to lose everything unless he does what he’s told, what he “agreed” to do by taking the money.
The conspirators believe they have the game rigged so they win no matter what Michael tries to do to escape. But this is a Liam Neeson movie – you know our hero and his particular set of skills will help him find a way out.
Fourth time’s the charm
Neeson reteams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for “The Commuter;” the two previously collaborated on 2011’s “Unknown,” 2014’s “Non-Stop,” and 2015’s “Run All Night.”
Though these films are all marketed more or less like riffs off Neeson’s well-worn “Taken” series, they differ from those action thrillers in that they’re all built around the concept of an “everyman” faced with an impossible situation and a clock ticking on him figuring a way out. They’re more mysteries and ethical dilemmas than straight-up actioners, requiring more contrived plotting and creation of suspense than just fight scenes and explosions.
“The Commuter” benefits from a relatively strong script that sets up Neeson’s character and his “impossible situation” quickly and efficiently. Does it feel contrived? Sure, but it’s not so implausible that it should throw audiences completely out of the story – at least not until the ending.
The film also benefits from the steady, capable presence of Neeson, who at this point can play roles like this in his sleep. No matter how many times he does the gruff but affable good guy, audiences will likely buy in thanks to his charisma and screen presence – he really could sell insurance and we’d most likely pay attention to his pitch.
As with much of what hits theaters every year in January, “The Commuter” isn’t really must-see material.
It’s a serviceable thriller that should hold your interest, especially if you’re a fan of Neeson’s. But it doesn’t stand out in any meaningful way from his other work, and doesn’t particularly demand viewing in a premium setting.
Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, with Elizabeth McGovern, and Sam Neill. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.