**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jaume Collet-Serra
STARS Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga
- Colin McFarlane and Liam Neeson in The Commuter (Photo: Lionsgate)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles might be the name of a beloved John Hughes flick from the 1980s, but it’s also Liam Neeson’s preferred modes of transportation en route to dispatching various baddies with bone-crunching determination. Under the watchful eye of director Jaume Collet-Serra, Neeson has taken to cars in Unknown, an airplane in Non-Stop, and now a locomotive in The Commuter. (In their joint offering Run All Night, the actor was content just to hoof it.)
In The Commuter, Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former cop who has spent the past decade working as an insurance salesman. Unexpectedly losing his job, Michael’s in a vulnerable state, which largely explains why, on his train ride home, he accepts a mysterious offer from a complete stranger (Vera Farmiga): Locate a certain person on the train and earn an easy $100,000. Michael takes the bait, but once he realizes that the individual he’s expected to expose is being targeted for assassination, he spends the rest of the commute trying to figure out how to thwart the killers.
The January-February stretch of any new year is often a dumping ground for the studios’ tax write-offs, but that’s clearly not the case when it comes to Liam Neeson action vehicles — here, it’s a matter of strategic scheduling, as most have tended to do quite well at the box office against limp competition. The Commuter similarly gets the job done, with Neeson’s committed performance providing a strong center to an increasingly outlandish storyline. The identity of the “surprise” villain was obvious before the script was even written (and the way he trips himself up is daft beyond compare), and late innings find Neeson’s Everyman engaged in death-defying activities that would give even Superman pause. But for those looking for a reasonably satisfying mix of mystery and muscle, The Commuter should be just the ticket.