‘The Commuter’: fast, fun, flippant action ride

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GRADE: B-

Who would have thought that 24 years after Liam Neeson was nominated for the best actor Oscar for “Schindler’s List” he would be starring in small action films like “The Commuter?”

What’s really surprising is films like it are actually high points in Neeson’s career, and “The Commuter” may be the best among them. Though it does falter in some of its narrative, the film provides a high-intensity ride about the struggles of the average working Joe, played by a capable Liam Neeson.

It was “Taken” that first cemented Neeson as a certified action star. Since then, many of the films that have shown up on the actor’s IMDb page are films that bear a striking resemblance to it such as “The Grey,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night.”

Neeson teamed up for “The Commuter” with the director of “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night,” and their newest film is arguably superior to both.

The movie opens with one of the most brilliant montages I’ve ever seen on film, which brings us up to speed on Michael MacCauley’s (Neeson) domestic life with his wife and teenage son in New York.

We learn MacCauley has been laid off from his job at an insurance company, leaving him and his family with two mortgages and his son’s upcoming college tuition fees.

After boarding the train for his commute home, he meets a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who makes him an offer: find the passenger on the train who doesn’t belong. This passenger, called Prynne, will be carrying something. If MacCauley can attach a GPS tracker to them, he stands to make $100,000. No other details are given to MacCauley, including what will become of Prynne after the GPS is placed on them.

Does he do it? Yes.

As expected, the ensuing hunt for the stranger turns ugly. MacCauley is met with threats against his family and other passengers on the train if he fails to meet the demands of the mysterious people who want Prynne.

In his performance, Neeson doesn’t deviate from his usual shtick in these sorts of roles. He’s the gruff, older hero who’s seen some things and has been around the block a couple of times.

But the train is the real performer in this film. While it only acts as the film’s central location, the train feels delightfully real and its forward momentum carries most of the film, filling you with both hopeful anticipation and sinking dread.

You meet a great cast of suspects as MacCauley searches for Prynne and learns what it is they’re hiding. But as he inches closer to uncovering their identity, the film unravels a bit.

The problems in this film lie in it’s the third act.

As the stakes grow higher, the film has no choice but to make itself even more over-the-top in an attempt to keep up with the seriousness of the situation. The story becomes too unrealistic and you can begin to poke holes in the film’s screenplay, which is credited to three people – not often a great sign for a film.

Can a movie be too ambitious?

Yes, and “The Commuter” is a textbook example of how this happens.

If you’ve seen “Non-Stop” you know how this happens. The same problems that appear in that film also show up in “The Commuter.”

To some degree, “The Commuter” is just a train version of that film. You have a disheveled Neeson, a mysterious female passenger and a high-stakes, locked-room mystery.

So no, “The Commuter” isn’t a necessary ride to take at the theater. But if it makes a stop at Netflix or the discounted section on iTunes, I’d give it a whirl.

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