Liam Neeson, star of “The Commuter,” is the undisputed king of action movies because he invests even the silliest of them with the gravitas of a serious actor. He might be too good for the lower end of the genre but it’s great to have him working in it.
In the filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra he has found an ideal collaborator, a gifted director with a serious knack for high-functioning B-movies (one of their previous films ,“Non-Stop,” for example, is the epitome of a basic action film, but a lot of fun).
Alas, “The Commuter,” their fourth collaboration, stands as a misfire of serious proportions. It aspires toward Hitchcockian territory as a mystery-thriller set in a single location but achieves little more than profoundly convoluted dullness.
Set aboard a version of a Metro-North train that looks like an old C train subway car with better seats, the picture follows Neeson’s insurance salesman Michael McCauley as he’s fired from his job and then faced with an intriguing prospect from a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) on his commute back home to Westchester: Collect $100,000 if he can identify a certain passenger by the end of the line.
It’s a thin premise, awfully difficult to flesh out into a feature-length narrative. But that’s a compelling challenge for the director and screenwriters Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. The setup is filled with promise: surely there must be compelling twists and turns awaiting on this journey upstate, because there has to be more happening than Neeson walking up and down the train for about an hour, right?
Sadly, no. For the majority of the movie that’s the pattern: an increasingly agitated and panicked Michael scans the aisles, checks tickets, interacts with suspicious characters in both aggressive verbal and physical confrontations and generally does so with so little genuine interest that the movie starts to feel like the big-screen version of being stuck on a hopelessly delayed train.
The nature of the offer that sets the plot in motion is so impossibly ridiculous that it’d be hard to fully explain here; suffice it to say it involves a run-of-the-mill city agency, a witness to a murder, powerful interests and a whole lot of exposition that characters hurriedly spit out.
Neeson works hard as he always does, and the filmmaker stages at least one riveting sequence on the speeding locomotive that would be at home alongside classic train action spectacles of movies past.
But there’s a total failure to generate suspense and intrigue or to ground the story in anything approaching a realistic commuting experience, surrounded by New York characters who are more than one-dimensional archetypes.
The movie isn’t silly enough to be enjoyed as schlock and it’s not smart enough to be taken seriously. It’s just sort of there and then it ends, a missed opportunity soon to be forgotten.