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Liam Neeson’s routine ride in ‘The Commuter’

By Harry Windsor
Having conquered planes and automobiles, Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra move the action to trains

Perhaps because his run as an action star came when he was in his mid 50s, Liam Neeson seems like a man making up for lost time. Unable to do any but his native accent, he’s like this generation’s Sean Connery, only with less mischief and more melancholy. The director he’s worked with more than any other during this period – since 2008’s Taken set him on an unexpected, bone-crunching track – is Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spaniard whose feature career began in Australia, where he made the Paris Hilton–starring House of Wax in the mid 2000s.

Collet-Serra’s first collaboration with Neeson, 2011’s Unknown, was a vaguely Hitchcockian potboiler that began with Neeson’s taxi careening off a Berlin bridge, messing with his memory. Director and star then moved on to 2014’s Non-Stop, with the Block from Ballymena as an alcoholic former cop turned air marshal who finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation on board a commercial flight. Neeson’s bid to unravel the conspiracy is complicated by the fact that everybody on board begins to suspect that Neeson himself is the hijacker.

That’s also, roughly speaking, the plot of their latest thriller, The Commuter (in national release), only this time the action’s been transferred to a train. Neeson is Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop (again) who’s gotten into the insurance game, commuting to a glass-walled Manhattan office every day from somewhere like New Jersey. Collet-Serra opens with a montage of his morning routine, from alarm clock to breakfast to the train station, with match-cut costume changes from linens to winter-wear indicating that we’re cycling through a year-round routine.

Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern plays Neeson’s wife, and she doesn’t have much to do other than look adoringly at her husband. Her confidence in him might be why MacCauley can’t bring himself to tell his wife that he’s been laid off, jeopardising their plans to send their son (Dean-Charles Chapman, or Tommen from Game of Thrones) to Syracuse.

MacCauley earlier lost everything in the financial crash, and the screenwriters have him reading The Grapes of Wrath on his commute. His new-found desperation makes him the perfect rube for Vera Farmiga (the star of the director’s 2009 horror film Orphan), who sits down opposite MacCauley on the evening train, offering $100,000 to locate a passenger on board who “doesn’t belong”.

The plot involves a witness on the way to meet the feds, and corrupt cops hell-bent on making sure the witness doesn’t make it. Sam Neill and Patrick Wilson appear in support, the former with especially little to do. Ditto Lady Macbeth breakout Florence Pugh and Land of Mine’s Roland Møller, as two of MacCauley’s fellow passengers.

The whole thing plays like Murder on the Orient Express with mobile phones and more explosions. As in Non-Stop, The Commuter features an ambiguously motivated ensemble of types: the finance jerk, the goth chick, the macho hothead etc. Møller even gets a moment, on a hospital gurney at the film’s end, identical to one enacted by Corey Stoll in Non-Stop. What’s missing is a diverting mystery. Although different writers have written each of Collet-Serra’s films, they’re alike in preposterousness. The villains always seem more interested in framing Neeson than in the elaborate crime he’s meant to be the fall guy for, and the twists aren’t so much built towards as dumped wholesale to make way for the pyrotechnics.

Scenes are garlanded by visible CGI at every turn, even in those set inside the train – as in an entertaining one-take hand-fight, with one combatant wielding a guitar and the other an axe, that plays like the tussle between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, only sped up inside a computer. This is a film made with the latest digital technology, and featuring plenty of it, too, with plot points built around tracking devices and infra-red heat tech that distinguishes friend from foe. Neeson spends almost as much time talking on the phone as he does to people on screen, and, as in Fury Road, it’s an action film in which antagonist and protagonist barely meet.

Like George Miller, Collet-Serra is a bit of an outlier, making original genre films within the studio system. At this point, I suppose, Neeson is his own genre. But this particular vehicle is cursorily sketched, and its derailment, at least for those of us who want to see Neeson do more than his harried but invincible schtick in routine actioners, is all too predictable.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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