Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an ex-cop who has spent his last ten years as a life insurance salesman, commuting Monday through Friday into Grand Central from his family's suburban home up the Hudson in Tarrytown, New York.
The train is held at Harlem long enough for Neeson to watch a character exit, walk downstairs to the street, cross to a corner and get shoved into a bus. He knows everyone on the train, which is one of the reasons why he's the flawless target for manipulation.
It's a day like any other, except that Mike has just been fired.
As he seats himself on the train home, however, he is propositioned by a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who sits opposite him: find a certain passenger on the train, put a Global Positioning System tracker on that person, and MacCauley can collect $100,000, with a $25,000 down payment already stashed in a lavatory on the train. Needless to say, things are far more complicated than she presents them, and soon enough, all hell breaks loose on the train back upstate.
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The opening scenes of The Commuter are fraught with tension, especially once the plot is set in motion, and in this way it most resembles Non-Stop, in which Neeson's alcoholic air marshall had to identity a terrorist on a plane while avoiding being framed himself. The plot mechanics don't matter almost so much as the visceral feelings of strength and relevance that a film like this imbues, and sometimes it's nice just to get caught up in a stupid fantasy. The Stratocaster showdown happens when he confronts a guy carrying a guitar case; using his observation skills, Michael realizes that guy isn't planning on using it for band practice, and the battle is on. It's not going to launch a catchphrase and a series of movies like "Taken", but it has all of the elements that you want - Liam Neeson as an old dude with awesome skills, frantically trying to solve a mystery and beating the tar out of some baddies in the process. If MacCauley can identify a passenger who, as Joanna describes "does not belong", he will be rewarded with $100,000 cash. "The Commuter" rides very much the same rail as his previous movies with Collet-Serra; it's a hostage crisis tick-tock that speeds straight ahead. With twists that are telegraphed like a conductor is shouting them out ahead of time, this commute's just not worth the trip. Michael says he was sacked "after 10 years" once every 10 seconds. If this just sounds like Non-Stop on a train, you're right.
Subtlety is not a strength here, though that's sure to elicit applause in most theaters where "The Commuter" will sell out. You still want more from her than what The Commuter provides, but she delivers a noteworthy performance that makes you pine for villainous roles in her future. Much of it is predictable, particularly when it comes to that mystery, and you can't help but wonder how good the film could have been with something a little extra working beyond the surface-level, action beats. Turn off your brains, and you'll both have a pretty good time.
It's also remarkable that there are no delays on the train -- that may be the most unbelievable aspect of them all.