Liam Neeson tries blending his "Taken" killing machine with being a 60-year-old everyman in "The Commuter," a procedure that doesn't entirely work. Nevertheless, the actor's appeal mostly powers through this check-your-brain-at-the-door thriller, without qualifying as a trip that requires rushing to catch it on a theatrical platform.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman who has dutifully boarded the train to his office gig for the last decade, leaving his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, although blink and you'll miss her) and college-bound son behind.
MacCauley is headed home when he's presented with an offer by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who promises him $100,000 -- which will come in handy, given that he's just been rather abruptly laid off -- if he'll identify and tag a tracker on a passenger aboard the train, no questions asked.
Despite meeting a stranger on a train, MacCauley isn't exactly your standard Hitchcockian ordinary bloke, inasmuch as he was a cop, we're told, before he decided to switch careers. As luck would have it, like riding a bicycle, those skills -- while not quite as special as the ones to which "Taken" fans became accustomed -- are quickly put to use as he schleps between cars, simultaneously trying to find the mystery passenger and discover a way out of his predicament.
Working from a script credited to a trio of writers, director Jaume Collet-Serra -- steering his fourth collaboration with Neeson, including "Unknown" and "Non-Stop" -- struggles a bit to overcome the slightly claustrophobic nature of the action. The stakes, meanwhile, gradually build, with their plausibility ebbing accordingly.
There are, in fact, a few fairly risible moments, especially one near the end that's such a direct homage to an epic classic as to practically border on parody.
Neeson, however, brings such earnestness to these roles that he somehow sells them -- initially as a family man reluctantly thrust into a perilous situation, and then as a can-do warrior battling the shadowy forces arrayed against him.
The movie proves more of a letdown for the other actors who board this fast-moving yarn, leaving little to do for the more recognizable faces on the train (Jonathan Banks) as well as those who aren't (McGovern, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill).
Even with its conspicuous bumps, by the time it's over "The Commuter" delivers on a basic level, in what feels like a throwback to old-style, low-octane thrillers. By the end of the line, Neeson again proves that nabbing a ticket when he's involved seldom makes for a bad ride, even when, as in this case, it's kind of a simple-minded one.
"The Commuter" opens Jan. 12 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.