Call mass transit commuting tedious if you will, but I enjoyed my time years back riding New York’s Metro North trains to and from Manhattan. Got to read, wrap up lingering editing chores, and practice what we now call mindfulness.
But seeing what the Liam Neeson thriller “The Commuter” imagines might go down on those very same rails, I guess I was slacking off. Who knew there was an entire mayhem-filled action screenplay just waiting to be plucked from the workaday MTA experience?
The movie pairs Neeson for a fourth time with dependable genre director Jaume Collet-Serra (the airborne “Commuter”-y suspense entry “Non-Stop”). Here, they set to heightening the mundane straightaway, painting a portrait of insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Neeson) and his daily transportation routine that’s all exaggerated camaraderie, never mind the ensuing exaggerated intrigue. McCauley has his peeps on board (notably Jonathan Banks of “Breaking Bad,” along with shlubby Andy Nyman and conductor Colin McFarlane), and a quietly cozy time of things going to and fro.
That is, until he gets abruptly pink-slipped, and catches the six-oh-something back home still reeling. Sure, he gets sympathy from Murph (Patrick Wilson), his old partner from the NYPD (particular-set-of-skills alert, Neeson fans!). But how will he explain to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and college-bound son that their precariously mortgaged existence is kaput?
Enter enigmatic passenger Joanna (Vera Farmiga, making a Hitchcockian segue from “Bates Motel” into “Strangers on a Train” mode). Vaguely introducing herself as a behavioral scientist before vanishing at the next station stop, she tells McCauley there’s a whopping cash reward stashed in the train restroom if he’ll simply ID a mystery rider, no questions asked. (Some might contend the reward should be for venturing into that restroom, period, but that’s neither here nor lavatorically there.) McCauley is tempted, then reconsiders, then finds those around him facing increasingly sinister jeopardy the more he tries to do the heroic thing.
The conspiracy afoot hinges on telegraphed surprises, and the action threatens to derail (in the wrong way). Still, Neeson engages in some electrifying close-quarters brawling, and preposterous bits are offset by unanticipated slyness, from our glimpse of a “You Could Be Home Right Now” billboard to some hilarious anti-Wall Street shade-throwing. Neeson’s financially strapped character might vent even more convincingly if he didn’t somehow still have a BMW parked back at the depot, but we’re on board with him all the same.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle. Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 104 minutes. PG-13 (some intense action/violence, language).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.