Anyone who has followed the career of Liam Neeson over the last decade with even minimal interest will know that, beginning with “Taken” in 2008, he routinely cranks out the kind of B-movie thrillers that the phrase “stupid fun” was made to describe. Invariably, the veteran actor plays a mild-mannered man who is forced back into a life of violence he tried to leave behind by villains who you won’t care about but will cheer to see punched repeatedly in the face. If his family is involved, he will growl about them every chance he gets. He will kill people in such ludicrous, inventive ways that the most unbelievable thing about these movies becomes not that the 60-year-old Neeson can outfight 20-year-old MMA fighters, but that those younger men don’t get on their knees and beg for mercy when they see this one man army-stalking towards them.
“The Commuter” marks the most recent film in this trend, and the fourth directed by B-movie king Jaume Collet-Serra (“The Shallows”). This time Neeson’s unstoppable force of a character is confined to a commuter train, where he is instructed by a strange woman (Vera Farmiga, “The Conjuring”) to find the one passenger who doesn’t belong in exchange for a large sum of cash. Like many of Neeson’s collaborations with Collet-Serra, the initial premise is something out of a Hitchcock movie.
There’s a sense of intrigue and suspended tension that looms over the first half, and for much of its runtime, the film is more of a claustrophobic thriller than the out-and-out action movie some may have expected. Watching Neeson’s Michael McCulley, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman (check!), unravel the mystery set before him allows audiences to play along and gives Collet-Serra time to carefully set up the chessboard he will eventually just flip over, abandoning suspense in favor of an explosion tossing Neeson from one train car to another like a human bullet.
It’s not that there’s no place for action in a film like this; audiences will be coming to the theater for the promise of seeing Neeson do things that no mortal should ever attempt. It’s that these action scenes are at complete odds with what Collet-Serra had previously set-up. The two halves of his film — the thriller and the action movie — simply don’t fit together. Even worse are the ways the story ties itself in knots the longer it goes on in order to make the whole ordeal somehow personal to McCulley. The final act, in particular, is a study in how to run an interesting premise into the ground with countless increasingly generic storytelling choices. Neeson has done this before. Hell, he’s done it before with Collet-Serra in the director’s chair, which only makes it more disappointing that they make those same mistakes again.
However, in the midst of all this comes — and I say this without hyperbole — one of the best action scenes of Liam Neeson’s career. Amid its more forwardly stupid, bombastic ilk, it’s a signal of the movie “The Commuter” could have been. Not only is it done in a single shot that tracks McCulley and his assailant up and down the train car, not only is the choreography visceral and spectacular and not only does it end with the gloriously awesome image of Liam Neeson almost beating a man to death with a broken electric guitar, but the quickness and brutality on display actually match up to the film around it. It’s a thrilling fight scene in a thriller, as opposed to a Michael Bay edit-and-explosion-fest crammed into a Hitchcock homage. It’s an all too brief glimpse into what could have been the best Neeson-actioner since “Taken,” instead of its reality as an attention-diverting guilty pleasure.