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posted: 1/11/2018 6:00 AM

'The Commuter,' star Liam Neeson race through implausible plot bumps

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  • An ex-cop (Liam Neeson) gets caught up in a dangerous plot aboard a train in "The Commuter."

    An ex-cop (Liam Neeson) gets caught up in a dangerous plot aboard a train in "The Commuter."
    Courtesy of Lionsgate

By Jake Coyle
Associated Press

"The Commuter" - ★ ★

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 10 years since 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 (three "Taken" movies, "Non-Stop," "The Grey") anchored by Neeson's looming and still quite potent presence.

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 last 10 years as a life insurance salesman, commuting Monday through Friday into Grand Central from his family's suburban home in Tarrytown, New York. 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 an absurdly powerful syndicate that will use him to ferret out a crucial FBI witness. The gaps in the story's logic aren't to be minded. 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 antiquing.

A mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), left, approaches an ex-cop (Liam Neeson) about a plot to track down an FBI witness aboard their train in "The Commuter."
A mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), left, approaches an ex-cop (Liam Neeson) about a plot to track down an FBI witness aboard their train in "The Commuter." - Courtesy of Lionsgate

Most eyebrow raising for the millions who trudge into and out of Manhattan everyday will be an unforgivable incongruity in the train's otherwise largely accurate path. It makes various subway stops through Manhattan, when every commuter knows it runs straight to Harlem.

But Collet-Serra, whose "Non-Stop" similarly relished the confined space of an airplane cabin, is too interested with swooping his camera through the train to care much about the blur on the outside. But he knows well how to shoot Neeson, following the actor's hulking frame from car to car.

Their movies are, in part, parables for the terrorism age. As 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. And 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.

• • •

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Other: A Lionsgate release. Rated PG-13 for violence and language. 104 minutes

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