Review: ‘The Commuter’ Has Panic, Paranoia and Punches. Liam Neeson Too.

Posted January 11, 2018 5:11 p.m. EST

I’ll never get too mad about a midwinter Liam Neeson action movie, and not only because I know Neeson will be angry enough for both of us. “I’m 60 years old,” he growls several times in “The Commuter,” ostensibly to complain about the indignities his character is suffering but really to invite our admiration. The dude can trade punches with guys half his age, roll out from under the wheels of a moving train and then jump right back onto the train. He doesn’t make it look easy. The whole appeal of Neeson’s late-career rebirth as an action hero is that it looks like hell.

Directed by the noted Neesonist auteur Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night”), “The Commuter” for a short while promises to be something more than the usual barrage of fistfights, chases and grimaces. The opening title sequence, a montage of nearly-identical mornings in the life of Michael MacCauley, is a thing of beauty. Mike, who lives in Tarrytown, New York, awakens each day to ride the Metro-North Railroad train down to Manhattan. He kisses his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and banters with their teenage son (Dean-Charles Chapman). What could have been a sketch of Cheeveresque ennui is instead a brief and lovely survey of contentment.

We know Mike’s happiness will be shattered, and the clouds that gather to darken his day are also, at least at first, pretty interesting. The MacCauleys lost a lot in the 2008 financial crisis, and they’ve been struggling to rebuild since then. Mike is abruptly laid off from his job selling insurance, and has a quietly foreboding encounter with colleagues from his previous job, which was with the New York Police Department. (Of course he’s a former cop. He’s Liam Neeson. His colleagues are played by Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill.) And then, on the hot, crowded ride home, Mike meets a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who offers him $100,000 to identify another passenger, another stranger on the train.

Until the particulars of Joanna’s scheme start to reveal themselves — roughly until the first fight sequence — Collet-Serra cultivates a clammy, hallucinatory, Hitchcockian vibe. Mike is a hapless patsy, but he has also been knocked off his ethical moorings by the prospect of financial ruin. He’s in a trap he can’t escape, and suddenly everything looks different. The familiar faces of fellow commuters, some of whom he’s ridden with for years, take on a sinister cast. Panic and paranoia waft in on the summer air.

And then the mood is ruined. It’s not so much that “Commuter” reverts to form as an action movie — we expected as much — but that it does so with such weary contempt for its audience and its own better instincts. It’s not even very good as a genre exercise, and can’t always keep track of which genre muscles it wants to flex. For a while it’s a locked-room mystery. Then it’s a runaway-train thriller. Joanna’s conspiracy is so vast and preposterous that it becomes nothing more than a grab-bag of plot twists. As Mike pivots from moral ambiguity to righteous heroism, Neeson looks increasingly tired. I can’t blame him, though I guess I am a little bit mad after all.

“The Commuter”

Rated PG-13. Stand clear of the closing doors. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.