Neeson's 'Commuter' misses the ride

AP
The tagline for the Liam Neeson Metro-North thriller "The Commuter" – "Lives are on the line" – feels like a missed opportunity.
AP

Liam Neeson, starring Michael MacCauley, and Vera Farmiga, starring Joanna, in a scene from “The Commuter

The tagline for the Liam Neeson Metro-North thriller “The Commuter” — “Lives are on the line” — feels like a missed opportunity. It’s been ten years since Liam Neeson’s unlikely reign as the movies’ best action hero began with “Taken.” What has followed has been a decade of lean, blunt and glum thrillers anchored by the looming and still quite potent presence of Neeson.

“The Commuter,” reteams the 65-year-old with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an ex-cop who has spent his last ten years as a life insurance salesman, commuting Monday through Friday into Grand Central from his family home up the Hudson in Tarrytown, New York. The movie’s clever overlapping opening montage shows the repetition of his days.  

But one day, McCauley is fired five years short of retirement. 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. He stops for a drink with an old police partner before boarding the train home. 

There, he’s greeted by a Hitchcockian stranger on the train (Vera Farmiga) who explains that McCauley will make US$100,000 on his ride home if he can find the only person on the train “who doesn’t belong.”

McCauley soon discovers he has stepped into the plot of a powerful syndicate using him to ferret out a crucial FBI witness. The web around McCauley is mysterious. And for Cold Spring, a few stops past McCauley’s usual one, to be epicenter of such intrigue is curious. But then again, even the Feds deserve a bit of a brisk hike.

Most eyebrow raising for the 1.6 to 3.1 million who trudge in and out of Manhattan every day will be an unforgiveable incongruity in the train’s otherwise largely accurate path. It makes various subway stops through Manhattan, when every commuter since the time of “Revolutionary Road” knows it runs straight to Harlem. 

But Collet-Serra is too interested with swooping his camera through the train to care much about the blur on the outside. He knows well how to shoot Neeson, following the actor’s hulking frame from car to car.

Neeson must wrestle with the morality of uncovering the one threat in a sea of maybe-innocent, maybe-guilty faces, some of them daily riders, some of them unfamiliar. As before, Neeson is a lone warrior trying to stay decent in a fallen world. With pandering references to the big banks throughout, “The Commuter,” has just enough smarts to make its final destination disappointing.

The old equation of man-plus-locomotive has been a dependable one since Buster Keaton rode the rails in “The General,” Burt Lancaster in “The Train” and Denzel Washington in “Unstoppable.”

“The Commuter” isn’t in that class, but there are worse tickets to punch, especially in January.

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