Liam Neeson rides again in ‘The Commuter’

By Jake Coyle

AP Film Writer

The tagline for the Liam Neeson Metro-North thriller “The Commuter” – “Lives are on the line” – feels like a missed opportunity. I would have gone with: “The quiet car is about to get loud.”

It’s been ten years since Neeson’s unlikely reign as the movies’ best action hero began with “Taken” – the little Paris kidnapping that unlocked Neeson’s special set of skills. What has followed has been a decade of lean, blunt and glum thrillers (three “Taken” movies, “Non-Stop,” “The Grey”) anchored by the looming and still quite potent presence of Neeson.

Neeson has suggested that, at 65, he’s nearing the end of the line. 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. “The Commuter” rides very much the same rail as his previous movies with Collet-Serra; it’s a hostage crisis tick-tock that speeds straight ahead. Collet-Serra’s genre mechanics, stylized and sober, are efficient. His trains run on time, even if – especially in “The Commuter” – a rush-hour’s worth of implausibility eventually wrecks the thrill.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an ex-cop who has spent his past ten years as a life insurance salesman, commuting Monday through Friday into Grand Central from his family’s suburban home. The movie’s clever overlapping opening montage shows the repetition of his days, begun every day with 1010 Wins on the radio, a ride from his wife to the train station and the crowded but solitary walk through Grand Central.

But one day is a particularly bad one. 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 his old police partner (Patrick Wilson) before boarding the train home. There, he’s greeted by a Hitchcockian stranger on the train (Vera Farmiga) who explains that McCauley will make $100,000 on his ride home if he can only find the person on the train “who doesn’t belong.”

McCauley, as he soon discovers, has stepped into the plot of a powerful syndicate that will use him to ferret out a crucial FBI witness.

Collet-Sara and Neeson’s movies are, in part, parables for the terrorism age. Like in “Non-Stop,” where Neeson played an air marshal, the protagonist of “The Commuter” must wrestle with the morality of uncovering the one threat in a sea of maybe-innocent, maybe-guilty faces, some of them “regulars” (daily riders), some of them unfamiliar. As before, Neeson is a lone warrior trying to stay decent in a fallen world.

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