[Screen It]


(2017) (Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga) (PG-13)

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Action/Thriller: A recently fired insurance agent is presented with a lucrative offer -- $100,000 for figuring out who doesn't belong on his daily commuter train and getting his hands on a mystery object in their bag -- that turns out to be good too good to be true, or safe.
Michael MacCauley (LIAM NEESON) is a 60-year-old man who gave up being a cop a decade ago to become a life insurance agent. His life is rather mundane, including taking the commuter train into the city each day for work, and he and his wife, Karen (ELIZABETH McGOVERN), are trying to figure out how to pay for their son's college tuition. Thus, Michael is thrown for a loop when he's fired out of the blue, and after drowning his sorrows with his former cop partner, Alex Murphy (PATRICK WILSON), he boards the train and heads home, trying to figure out how to break this news to Karen.

But that gets interrupted when a stranger, Joanna (VERA FARMIGA), sits down across from him on the train and proposes a compelling offer. She states that someone on the train doesn't belong there and if he figures out who that person is, and can get his hands on a yet-to-be-disclosed item in their bag he'll get $100,000 for his efforts. He doesn't believe this is true, but after finding the $25,000 down payment in one of the bathrooms, he realizes it's real. Even so, and despite taking the money, he has no intention of completing the task for the rest. That is, until Joanna -- who's no longer on the train but communicates with him via phone or intermediaries -- informs him that doing so puts his wife and son at risk.

Accordingly, he tries to figure out who the person is, although he can immediately rule out the likes of his commuter friend, Walt (JONATHAN BANKS), as well as the train's conductors, long-time veteran Sam (COLIN McFARLANE) and his younger counterpart, Jimmy (ADAM NAGAITIS). With time running out before getting to the station where the person -- identified only as "Prynne" -- is supposedly going to disembark, Michael suspiciously eyes the various passengers who range from Eva (CLARA LAGO) and Sofia (ELLA-RAE SMITH) to Jackson (ROLAND MOLLER) and Oliver (KOBNA HOLDBROOK-SMITH) among others who are unaware of what's occurring.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I've said it before and I'll say it again and again, simply because it's undeniably true -- a film's hero is only as good as his or her antagonist or straight-out villain. Think of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" or Heath Ledger's The Joker in "The Dark Knight." If you substituted the usual one-dimensional bad guy commonly found in thrillers into those parts, the roles and thus films never would have become so iconic.

At the same time and along the same lines, the villainous ploy -- whatever it might be -- must be plausible. That doesn't necessarily mean it needs to be simplified or dumbed down. After all, Mr. Gruber's larceny at Nakatomi Plaza was somewhat complicated and certainly highly orchestrated. But not for one minute did it take viewers out of the proceedings due to implausible material.

Sadly, that's what ultimately derails "The Commuter," an action-thriller set aboard a commuter train headed away from the Big Apple. Onboard is a former cop turned decade-long insurance agent (Liam Neeson) who's just been canned just when his son's college tuition tab is going to start amassing.

As "luck" would have it, he's offered a part-time job with no apparent benefits beyond the potential of earning $100,000 before the train reaches one of its last stations. According to his new "boss" (Vera Farmiga) who sits down opposite him, all he has to do is find the one person who doesn't belong on the train and get his hands on their bag (and whatever mystery item is present inside that).

Cue up the first plausibility issue. Being a former man in blue one would think he'd call this in (to someone like his former cop partner -- played by Patrick Wilson -- with whom he's just had a few brewskies before boarding the train) or simply ignore it. Instead, he goes, finds and pockets the $25,000 down payment, and then decides that's good enough.

But then a young stranger bumps into him at a stop, warns him about not following through, and hands him a small package that contains the wedding ring belonging to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern). Holy "Taken" meets "Murder on the Orient Express!"

Yes, Neeson is back in wronged action hero mode, teamed up with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the fourth time (following 2011's "Unknown," 2014's "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night" a year after that). And while he still looks remarkably good (action hero wise) for his age (65, playing 60 here), the fact that he can (inevitably) take a beating (or two, or three or four) and keep fighting back with amazing resilience once again pushes our disbelief button (although I have to admit his use of a guitar as a weapon of choice in one particular moment is inspired and quite entertaining as the beat -- or beat-down in this case -- goes on).

But the biggest issue is with the villain and her see-all, hear-all abilities to know exactly what's occurring, predict the reluctant hero's next moves, and have a web of conspirators always in the right place at just the right time to interact with him. To make matters worse, after her intro early on, she's only heard on the phone having disembarked after the introductory offer. In "Speed," that worked because Dennis Hopper's villain had a camera mounted on the bus where Keanu Reeves' cop character was located, but it's just too much and too unbelievable here.

Collet-Serra and his trio of scribes -- Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle -- hope we'll overlook that with the frenetic (and over-edited) action sequences along with the "Orient Express" sort of "who's the mystery person" material. But as things progress and a corruption subplot takes shape, the film speeds toward its figurative and literal derailment.

I did enjoy some moments here and there, and few play the middle-aged reluctant hero character as well as Neeson does. But the film's repeated moments of taking me out of the action and mystery due to the growing amount of unbelievable material simply ended up annoying me like being repeatedly bumped and jostled by a bunch of rude strangers while packed on a crowded train headed home. "The Commuter" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed January 9, 2018 / Posted January 12, 2018

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