Movie Beat: Liam Neeson offers satisfying turn in "The Commuter"

Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson star in “The Commuter.” Jay Maidment  Lionsgate

Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson star in “The Commuter.” Jay Maidment Lionsgate

Does it sound naïve to say that I didn't realize The Commuter would be so intensely about trains?

As it turns out, Joanna's proposal is not merely hypothetical, as Mike receives, in short order, a $25,000 down payment waiting for him in the restroom, and then a message from a street urchin who appears in the train's doorway at the next station, asking him, on behalf of Farmiga's vanishing lady, if he has accepted the assignment.

While the idea of aging Liam Neeson as an action star has become something of a punchline recently, his latest genre effort and collaboration with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, The Commuter, does a fine job of illustrating why he keeps getting these roles. But that's not to deny the transient pleasures of "The Commuter", a film that enthusiastically puts the humble passenger vehicle through nearly as many mechanical acrobatics as any "Fast and Furious" hot rod, in the process gifting us with the line, "Between the train and the people, I always knew it would be the train".

The tagline for the Liam Neeson Metro-North thriller "The Commuter" - "Lives are on the line" - feels like a missed opportunity. Desperate times, desperate measures-you know the drill. The premise is simple (but crazy): a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) comes up to insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) while he's taking the train home during his daily commute.

Action fans might be disappointed that the fight scenes are relatively late in coming, though all of them are good when they do arrive (the last one in particular has a few touches of genuine cleverness).

McCauley, as he soon discovers, has stepped into the plot of an absurdly powerful syndicate that will use him to ferret out a crucial Federal Bureau of Investigation witness. He has until the Cold Spring stop to do it. The Commuter - again like Non-Stop, Run All Night, or Serra's most recent effort, The Shallows - only works if there's a propulsive drive to the material, and no other filmmaker working today can balance existential dread and visceral thrills without stopping for breath like Serra. It's the kind of inaccuracy that will cause untold swarms of strap-hangers to throw their MetroCards at the screen. Just don't analyze too much. Sometimes you just want an actor like Neeson to fend off an attacker with an electric guitar.

This image released by Lionsgate shows Liam Neeson in a scene from “The Commuter.”
This image released by Lionsgate shows Liam Neeson in a scene from “The Commuter.”

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

Neeson answered Taken 2, which may be a surprise to some (yes, it wasn't the best, but Taken 3, you have to admit, was really, truly awful) and after an awkward silence having been asked if any famous actress had ever turned him down for a date, he was lastly asked if size matters. It stays primarily mano a mano, but isn't that the fun of these Neeson films?

The old equation of man-plus-locomotive has been a dependable one for the movies since Buster Keaton rode the rails in "The General".

My advice for anybody planning to travel on mass transit - if you see Liam Neeson, change your travel plans.

"The Commuter" is rated PG-13 for intense action/violence and language; running time: 104 minutes.

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