Michael MacCauley is going to work. Day after day, he takes the train from the suburbs into New York City. Sometimes he and his wife have a pleasant chat on the way to the station, sometimes a fight, but as those daily voyages are intercut in the opening sequence of Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter, it becomes hard to tell one from the other. As Michael, played by Liam Neeson, finally strides through Grand Central Terminal, the crowd of day-trippers around him shifts into high gear as he continues at his even pace, a plodding constant in a sea of change.
This being a latter-day Liam Neeson movie, there will eventually be punches thrown and gravelly ultimatums issued, but Michael isn’t a man with a particular set of skills, just an ordinary guy trying to make his mortgage payments and send his son to college. A former cop whose life savings were wiped out in the 2008 financial crisis, he’s rebuilt his family’s life from scratch, and now all he wants to do is limp over the finish line. He’s a good soldier, but as his boss tells him right after informing him that he’s fired, sometimes soldiers die on the battlefield.
Fortunately, Neeson is made of sterner stuff. He’s already at a low point when he boards his return train, at one point ducking out on a chance to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) he’s out of a job and having his cellphone swiped to boot. But it gets lower when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) takes the Metro-North seat opposite him and offers him a deal: Use the knowledge he acquired in his former career as a police officer to identify the passenger on the train who doesn’t belong, and he’ll pocket a cool 100 grand in return. What happens to the passenger after that, she tells him, is none of his concern, but even a man as desperate as he is knows it won’t be anything good.
Neeson has spent most of the decade since 2008’s Taken playing men pushed to the brink, fighting disembodied enemies who always seem to see him even when he can’t see them. Communicating via text or, most often, phone call, they could be anywhere in the ether, but they’re still able to track his movements and make their presence felt, whether it’s via the $25,000 down payment left in the train’s bathroom or the fellow passenger who inexplicably turns up murdered. In The Commuter, that unseen villain is a spiritual cousin to the financial fat cats who prompted the 2008 recession and still walked away flush with government cash while working people like Michael wound up destitute. But the real enemy is the one you can feel creeping into Neeson’s aging joints, as much as the movie’s sometimes frenetic cutting tries to disguise it. Even when he’s told the bad guys have taken his wife and son hostage, Michael never sounds as terrified as he does when confronting the confluence of his unemployment and his age, pronouncing, “I’m 60 years old” as if it’s a death sentence.
The Commuter has nothing so heady as the plight of the forgotten man on its mind. The movie, whose screenplay is credited to Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle, is flagrantly, even willfully silly, juiced with such corny audacity it frequently made me laugh out loud.
It’s strewn with literary references—if you’ve ever longed for a movie in which Jonathan Banks corrects Liam Neeson on which Brontë sister wrote Wuthering Heights, you’re in luck—but they’re like the hardcover books interior designers buy in bulk to make moneyed homeowners look literate, thrown about without reason or care. With his last several movies, especially 2016’s The Shallows, Collet-Serra has acquired a reputation as a thinking person’s action director, but his intelligence is almost entirely practical: He loves to give himself challenges, like stranding his heroes on an airplane (as he did in previous Neeson collaboration Non-Stop) or on a rock in the ocean, and then figure his way out. It’s a thrill to watch him problem-solve, but it’s not enough to sustain an entire film, and when the surrounding material is thin, the center starts to sag as well.
Neeson spends less of The Commuter than you might think working his way up and down the train’s five cars—like Speed, it’s a movie whose first and final thirds exist mainly as cushions for its middle—and its climactic twists are so heavily telegraphed I spent much of the movie growing impatient for the other shoe to drop. But the ways Collet-Serra navigates that constrained space are frequently ingenious, even if one showpiece single-shot fight sequence is so obviously held together with digital glue that it’s difficult to even watch, let alone enjoy. Neeson lands plenty of punches, but the movie works best when he’s fighting shadows or fighting himself.