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The Commuter review – Liam Neeson turns Mr Incredible for white-knuckle train ride

Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson in The Commuter.
Stakes on a train … Vera Farmiga blackmails Liam Neeson in The Commuter. Photograph: Jay Maidment/AP

There’s no stopping this thoroughly efficient train-bound action thriller, which pulls out of New York’s Grand Central at a sedate pace and steadily accelerates through the suburbs, almost in real time, until 90 minutes later we’re careering out of control in a reckless race against time. It’s another white-knuckle ride from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra – something of a master of high-concept, ticking-clock B-movies – and his regular leading man, Liam Neeson, who is now as dependable as a Swiss watch in this type of senior action-hero role.

Liam Neeson in The Commuter.
Liam Neeson in The Commuter. Photograph: Jay Maidment/AP

Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, insurance broker and family man (although they might as well just name his character Liam Neeson). He’s caught the same Hudson line commuter train for 10 years; except this time Vera Farmiga elegantly plonks herself into the seat opposite and makes Neeson an offer he could refuse but doesn’t: find one person on the train based on their destination and nickname, plant a tracking device on their bag, and she’ll give him $100,000. He’s just lost his job, so why not? As an added incentive, Farmiga tells him they’ll kill his wife and son if he refuses or fails.

No sooner is Neeson pitched into this predicament than the questions mount up. Who are “they”? Why are they doing this? How can he possibly locate this mystery person? Why don’t they simply tell him who it is? And first and foremost, haven’t they seen the Taken movies? Don’t they know that if there’s one person whose family you don’t abduct in order to coerce him into being your random fall guy, it’s Liam Neeson?

But no time for details. Neeson’s tormentors quickly demonstrate they aren’t kidding, the pace starts picking up, and the race against time is on. It helps that Neeson is a former cop, and thus well equipped for the challenge. It also helps that he knows some regulars on the train, and we get to know plenty more passengers – or suspects. Who could it be? His buddy Jonathan Banks? The brash Wall Street type? Florence “Lady Macbeth” Pugh? The cocky conductor? The shifty guy with the snake tattoo? The Latina nurse?

As we accelerate from Hitchcock territory into the Die Hard zone, there’s a perverse “how’s he going to get out of this?” pleasure to proceedings, with a few switchbacks and red herrings to keep us guessing. Despite the confined location, there’s rarely a dull moment visually, either. Collet-Serra is constantly finding new places to put the camera, to the extent that by the end we’re familiar with every part of the train, from the vent in the toilet to the carriage couplings beneath the floor. The camera even flies through the punched hole of a train ticket in one gratifying shot.

The Commuter trailer video

But what keeps The Commuter on the rails is Neeson himself. He’s in amazing form for a 65-year-old (his character is only 60), and in terms of actorly presence, he’s still got it. His craggy face is now as monumental as Mount Rushmore, his voice is a resonant velvety growl, and his body can still give and take one hell of a pounding. What’s more, he can leap crashing train carriages in a single bound. He’s like a live-action version of Pixar’s Mr Incredible.

On the downside, The Commuter is in such a hurry to reach its destination without delay, there’s no time to enjoy the view. It’s so stripped down, the characters are mostly ciphers and there’s little in the way of leavening humour or unexpected detours. Perhaps you can’t ask too much from a modest, mid-range crowd-pleaser like this, but the experience ends up something like a commuter service itself: you know where it’s going and it gets you there perfectly well, but in a few years’ time you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from dozens of similar journeys.

This article titled "The Commuter review – Liam Neeson turns Mr Incredible for white-knuckle train ride" was written by Steve Rose, for The Guardian on Wednesday 10 January 2018 01.24pm

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