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This image shows Liam Neeson in a scene from 'The Commuter. [Jay Maidment/Lionsgate]

Movie review: ‘The Commuter’ derailed by implausibility

In “The Commuter,” another late-career actioner, Liam Neeson takes his save-the-day shenanigans aboard the 6:25 train to Cold Spring, a bumpy ride on which he must root out bad guys or it’s the end of the line for his family.

The movie marks the fourth collaboration between Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, and no shock, it pretty much follows the formula of the other three, “Non-stop,” “Run All Night” and “Unknown.” The only exception is the railroad setting. Collet-Serra (“The Shallows”) can schlock and awe with the best of them, but “The Commuter” is derailed by rampant implausibility. The script, by a trio of writers (Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle), wants to send a message about choices and consequences, but all you really want is Neeson to use those famous “particular set of skills” to kick bad-guy butt in inventive ways. Pass the popcorn.

Neeson is ex-cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley, an ordinary guy five years from retirement who begins this very bad day bantering with Walt (“Breaking Bad’s” Jonathan Banks) and the other regulars on his daily commute to Manhattan. Later, Mike loses his job. The timing sucks — he and wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern in a nothing part), already live paycheck-to-paycheck, carry two mortgages and struggle to pay the college tuition for their only son (Dean-Charles Chapman). In other words, theirs is a typical financially overburdened American middle-class existence.

A mystery woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), wearing a serious pair of black-and-white pumps, approaches Mike on the evening express and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: $100,000 to find someone on the train “who doesn’t belong” and plant a GPS tracking device in that person’s bag before the last stop. There’s an envelope of cash stashed in the restroom. If he takes the money, it’s an acknowledgment that he agrees to do the job. Joanna vanishes.

Since there’d be no movie if he doesn’t take the bait, Mike soon finds himself walking up and down the train trying to find the target — a person called “Prynne.” Is it the obnoxious Wall Street trader? The girl with pink hair and bag full of stolen credit cards? The guitar-carrying guy? It’s not long before Mike realizes he’s caught up in some criminal conspiracy and pivots when his family is threatened. As the train chugs along the Hudson, the plot contrivances grow sillier. It’s a miracle Neeson keeps a straight face in the midst of a growing onboard body count. Joanna sends menacing messages via other passengers, and she seems to have also commandeered the train’s controls. Neeson desperately keeps fighting, taking a few beatings and administering a couple of his own.

Early on, the action builds slowly as we get to know Mike and other supporting characters, like Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill’s NYPD officers, then, like the train Mike is riding, the whole thing jumps the track with too much exposition and predictable double crosses. Tension is in short supply. Obvious red herrings don’t throw us off the trail. Neeson tries — in all his Everyman glory — to make us believe in Mike. But everything about “The Commuter” is unreal.

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“The Commuter”

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern.

(PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.)

Grade: C

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