"THE COMMUTER — 2½ stars — Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern; PG-13 (intense action/violence and language); in general release
"The Commuter" is kind of like an order of cheap takeout tacos. It will get the job done, but you know they probably aren't very good — or very good for you.
Jaume Collet-Serra's film is the latest entry in the Liam Neeson Action Era, launched by 2008's "Taken," whereby a male lead pushing the boundaries of his middle age summons brutal and surprising physical skills to fight the insidious forces of evil, usually on behalf of his family.
In "The Commuter," Neeson plays an ex-cop (of course) who is being forced to assist in an assassination attempt on a commuter train in order to protect his wife and son. So yeah, it's basically "Taken on a Train."
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off after a decade of work in the life insurance business. He took the gig in the wake of the 2008 recession, sometime after walking away from his job with the NYPD, where he worked with his partner Murphy (Patrick Wilson) and Hawthorne (Sam Neill), who just made captain.
On his way home to break the news to his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), Michael is approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who poses a hypothetical situation: locate a fellow passenger who is transporting a stolen item on the train, and collect $100,000.
The payoff is tempting, since Michael's son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) is about to start school at Syracuse, and the job is a simple fit for a particular set of skills he probably shouldn't have left behind. So when he discovers that the hypothetical is real, Michael takes the money in the name of his two mortgages. But when he gets second thoughts — the more he learns, the more he realizes the "thief" is more of an innocent victim — Joanna informs Michael that his family will pay a nasty penalty if he doesn't cooperate.
The setup is interesting enough, and Neeson's veteran presence is a nice complement to the "Ten Little Indians"-style plot that begins to unfold as Michael starts to sift through the other passengers. But "The Commuter" works a lot better as a suspense film than an action film, and when the fists start flying, Collet-Serra's film threatens to go off its rails.
When Neeson starred in the first "Taken," his unstoppable-ball-of-paternal-rage felt a lot more believable, even if it was largely a guilty pleasure. But in "The Commuter," the brutality feels a lot more forced, and a key action sequence late in the film will probably elicit more laughs than gasps.
The story also begins to feel predictable the more it goes along, if only because by having so many familiar faces introduced early on, you know that it's only a matter of time before they get tied back into the story.
The result is a piece of glorified B-movie action-suspense that is just watchable enough to justify in a late-night pinch, but nothing that would hold up in the light of day. "The Commuter" might provide a couple of warm, Neeson-filled hours away from the January cold, but like your favorite go-to fast food, you know it's a temporary fix at best.
"The Commuter" is rated PG-13 for intense action/violence and language; running time: 104 minutes.