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Review: "The Commuter"

For most of his career Oscar nominee Liam Neeson did a remarkable job of shifting from prestige films like Schindler's List, The Mission and Gangs of New York to edgy genre pictures like Darkman, Gun Shy and Batman Begins. Neeson, a tall, intimidating Irishman with a looming presence, knew his real strength was in those piercing eyes of his. They could emote pain and despair just as easily as they could switch to steely grit. Looking back at his filmography now, it's surprising to see that it took until 2009's Taken for studios to cash in on his leading man specialness. Taken became an unexpected hit, grossing $226 million globally on a modest budget of $25 million. And the formula of Taken was simple: position Neeson as a trusting family man and father who is put to the test when his daughter is kidnapped. Oh, and it's also good to mention that Neeson's character is a retired CIA agent who knows how to kick the shit out of anybody.

But what made the first Taken (they've made three so far, plus a spinoff TV series in 2017) such a hit with moviegoers wasn't the intense action or the seedy sex trafficking circuits. What made Taken a hit was that Neeson finally found the osmosis for his physical screen presence and his impressive dramatic chops in the mold of not just any action hero, but an action hero who you would also want to be your dad. Neeson's version of an action hero wasn't a loose cannon asshole who was fucking girls left and right while driving a shitty sports car. Rather, Neeson donned a dark (dad) blazer, carrying that old school man's man mentality, while genuinely emoting a serious love for his onscreen family. We rooted for him because deep down we wanted him to kick ass for us (hypothetically speaking).

The nerve that Taken struck prompted Hollywood to recast Neeson in various iterations of the film (Non-Stop, A Walk Among Tombstones and Run All Night) to mostly tepid results. However, I'm happy to report that Hollywood's latest attempt, The Commuter, is a successful endeavor. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), The Commuter plays to Taken's notes but dials it all back a notch. Instead of a retired CIA agent, Neeson's Michael MacCauley is a an ex-cop who now sells life insurance. Instead of trotting around Europe, MacCauley rides the Metro-North train leaving New York City. And instead of his daughter getting kidnapped and traded into an underground sex slave ring, MacCauley's wife and son are threatened to be in peril if he doesn't play ball with some powerful people.

After an opening montage that establishes MacCauley's decade-long routine of taking the train to and from work everyday, we follow him on one of those days so spectacularly thrilling, it could only happen in the movies. When MacCauley is on the homebound train, tired and stressed with financial troubles on his mind, he is approached by a striking woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him there's $25,000 cash in the train's restroom and another $75,000 waiting for him if he can find a passenger on the same train who goes by the name Prynne -- and then plant a tracking device on his or her bag. Of course, we and MacCauley know that there are some sinister implications behind this, as we're to assume this Prynne has a price on his or her head, so by planting the tracking device MacCauley would in fact be marking a person for death.

Collet-Serra does a pretty dazzling job for the first 45 minutes of moving the plot along with a zippiness and excitement that keeps us on edge to see how far down this rabbit hole MacCauley ends up. After all, $100,000 is $100,000. And from a filmmaking standpoint, Collet-Serra and his team of collaborators pull off some nifty movie wizardry, namely in a timelapse overhead shot of MacCauley walking through Grand Central Terminal as hundreds of passengers walk by him and in several digital dolly shots that go through the punched holes of train tickets sticking out of passengers' seats (the latter is very much inspired by those digital dolly shots through appliances and furniture in David Fincher's Panic Room). Eventually though, Neeson has to put his MacCauley into full Taken mode with exhaustive hand-to-hand combat scenes (some good, yes) and crazy escapes from death (he gives Tom Cruise a run for his money in the train sequence from the first Mission: Impossible) but that shouldn't spoil the impressive escalation of suspense the film achieved in the first hour.

Eventually the film runs out of energy and twists, as we all figure out who the "real" villain is about half an hour before the film ends...which is probably why screenwriters Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle decide to literally take the story off the rails for the third act. Still, The Commuter is a lot of fun and builds so much Hitchcockian suspense in its first half that it's very easy to forgive its missteps during the final stretch. This is the Liam Neeson action picture that'll make you want to tell your dad to be careful the next time he plans on commuting. And that you love him.