Liam Neeson's latest thriller "The Commuter" plays to every one of his strengths as an unlikely action hero, but the formula is starting to fizzle.
If you're at Grand Central Station and you see Liam Neeson boarding your train, get off. If there's one thing his recent spate of against-the-clock thrillers has taught us, you'll be in for a bumpy ride.
No one is more surprised by the actors later-in-life reinvention as an action hero than the towering six foot four Irish actor himself. But at 65 he has made no secret that he thinks he's getting a little long in the tooth for these high octane shoot-em-ups.
“They're still throwing serious money at me to do that stuff,” he told the press recently. “I'm like: “Guy's I'm sixty-f—ing five.” Audiences are eventually going to go: “Come on,” he said.
Some, like Taken, have been major box office hits, whilst others like the repulsively brutal A Walk Among The Tombstones haven't fared quite so well. But the studios have sent him eye popping contracts for his services and often he has signed up.
In The Commuter the internationally admired 65 year old actor is back as a former cop who has made the more lucrative career transition to insurance salesman. Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an Irish born immigrant who on the surface seems to embody the self-made American dream.
McCauley has a wife (Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern) a college-bound son (Dean Charles Chapman) a luxury SUV and a tony townhouse in the leafy suburbs. He's an avatar of middle class achievement.
But no sooner do we take in his enviable lifestyle and happy home than it all starts to come crashing down around him. First he's called into the boss' office to hear he's being unceremoniously canned.
How am I going to pay my mortgage, send my son to college, and keep a roof over my head if I'm suddenly out of work at 60 he asks, not unreasonably? The question takes on an added urgency because Neeson underplays it, managing to keep his anxiety hidden from most of his co-stars but not from the audience.
Afraid to tell his wife the terrible news, he instead reconnects with an old NYPD buddy (played by Patrick Wilson) at a local Irish bar. But Wilson's character reminds him that politics not policing is the main order of the day back at his former department, making a jump back into his old life unlikely for McCauley.
Later, fortified by a few pints, but cored out by worry, he gets onto the evening train at Grand Central wondering how he's going to steer himself out of this sobering mess. If there's a God up there who's listening to his problems, now would be the optimum time to appear.
Instead a mysterious woman appears. As a decade long commuter on this train home, McCauley knows all the regular faces, but this woman (played by Vera Farmiga) isn't one of them. No sooner does she sit down but she's propositioning him. At first McCauley thinks she's flirting, so he gallantly informs her he's married. Then he sees her intention is contractual, not romantic.
For a man facing ruination that kind of cash offer is a life saving windfall, but at what cost he wisely asks? Farmiga's character explains that she's a student of human behavior and that she has picked McCauley for a reason. She knows all about him, she knows his need, she knows what kind of man he is and all those factors have led to his selection, she explains. If he's the man she thinks he is this whole thing will all be over soon. With that she sweeps off the train, leaving him to mull over what he's seen.You have to admit, there's a kind of Walter Mitty aspect to this bizarre proposition. It's as if the whole story had been concocted by a man (it has to have been a man) who takes the same dull commuter train to Beacon every evening and has decided to liven it up for himself. It's a tribute to Neeson's skill that he makes you buy it at all.
But as he might say himself, come on. If you can swallow The Commuter's stagey Hitchcockian set-up what follows will either captivate or cause you to scoff.
The film hopes you ask yourself what you would do in McCauley's shoes. Would you take the assignment, no matter where it leads, if you personally make out like gangbusters by the end?
Or would you do what McCauley starts to do? Wonder who is the puppet master behind all this and where exactly the train that's been set in motion is leading? Before he can back out of this increasingly sinister plan the mysterious woman and her allies up the ante considerably by pushing one of the train's regular commuters in front of a bus, in front of McCauley's horrified gaze. The message is we're serious, this is real.
Then to really push him into his patented I will find you and I will kill you avenging Taken mode, they do the unthinkable, but in these kinds of movies the inevitable, they threaten his wife and child.
But The Commuter falls apart under scrutiny. It gets increasingly far fetched and at times so completely over the top in its plot developments and empty spectacle (a runaway train, a cinema staple since before talkies) that you may find yourself laughing out loud, as I did.
All McCauley really wants to do is get home after a particularly tough day at the office but fate and these unseen manipulators can't even let him do that. As The Commuter hurdles along like a runaway freight train toward its spectacular, gun toting denouement, Neeson's motives for pursuing these violent thrillers is as plain as the computer generated train crash that leads to the final act, they make money.
Like an MTA train at Penn Station, it feels overdue.