The film commences the bafflement from the off, with a needlessly tricksy opening-credits sequence, rife with repeated fades to black, that splits and splices timelines - all for the sake of establishing the thoroughly mundane morning routine of Michael MacCauley (Neeson), a gray-suited insurance salesman and family man who commutes daily between his Manhattan office and his well-cushioned upstate home.
The fourth - and least satisfying - collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson (after "Unknown", "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night"), "The Commuter" places Neeson's now-familiar AARP-eligible action hero, this time an insurance salesman and ex-cop named Mike MacCauley, on the 6:25 train home from Manhattan to suburban NY. Take your dad to the movies and let him stew over how he has to wait to add this movie to his ever-growing collection of Neeson vehicle DVDs. His trains run on time, even if - especially in "The Commuter" - a rush-hour's worth of implausibility eventually wrecks the thrill. One particular fight on board the confinement of the train is particularly well-shot, Collet-Serra letting it play out in a seemingly endless single shot that amps up the intensity. With his savings depleted by the 2008 financial crisis and college tuition coming soon for his high-school graduate son, McCauley's panic is palpable.
After having a beer with his old police partner Alex Murphy (the reliable Patrick Wilson), MacCauley heads for the train home to break the bad news to his family. Him or her, and I didn't guess the identity of the witness he must identify. The web around McCauley is mysterious. Mike has until Cold Spring station, 50 miles or so up the Hudson, to figure it out. But then again, even the Feds deserve a bit of antiquing and a brisk hike. "Unknown", "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night" sound so tersely generic as to be slyly ironic, and that hint of playing-dumb humor extends to their gleefully absurd thriller mechanics: All three put rather a lot of crafty thought into their empty-headed pleasures. It's the kind of inaccuracy that will cause untold swarms of strap-hangers to throw their MetroCards at the screen. But he knows well how to shoot Neeson, following the actor's hulking frame from auto to vehicle. He plays a harried commuter who has to stop a conspiracy so complicated he probably wishes he had something as simple as a serial killer to deal with.
Lest audiences put too much tortuous thought into the motives or endgame of pretty much anyone in this scenario, Collet-Serra cranks up this locomotive as he knows best, building as much breathless, senseless real-time momentum as possible before train and plot go simultaneously, albeit spectacularly, off the rails. As before, Neeson is a lone warrior trying to stay decent in a fallen world. The Commuter doesn't boast an abundance of action, but the director uses his star and the setting in which his character finds himself to the best of his ability.
"The Commuter", a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some intense action/violence, and language".