The fourth — and least satisfying — collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson (after "Unknown," "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night"), "The Commuter" places Neeson's now-familiar AARP-eligible action hero, this time an insurance salesman and ex-cop named Mike MacCauley, on the 6:25 train home from Manhattan to suburban New York. It's a day like any other, except that Mike has just been fired. Oh, and one more thing: As the train is just pulling out of Grand Central Terminal, a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) approaches Mike, offering him $100,000 — hypothetically, as she puts it — if he can identify a passenger she knows only as "Prynne," who is carrying a bag containing something stolen. Mike has until Cold Spring station, 50 miles or so up the Hudson, to figure it out. At the next stop, she steps off the train, leaving Mike, and viewers, scratching our heads.
As it turns out, Joanna's proposal is not merely hypothetical, as Mike receives, in short order, a $25,000 down payment waiting for him in the restroom, and then a message from a street urchin who appears in the train's doorway at the next station, asking him, on behalf of Farmiga's vanishing lady, if he has accepted the assignment. It becomes clear that Mike really has no choice, as he learns that his wife and son (Elizabeth McGovern and Dean-Charles Chapman) are being held hostage as leverage, and will be killed if he doesn't comply. What's more, whenever Mike, who is somehow being watched, tries to wriggle out of his task by notifying the authorities or seeking help, someone on the train dies.
Here's a more pertinent and confounding hypothetical: Why, if Joanna — or whoever she's working for — wants "Prynne" dead, as it turns out, does she go to the trouble of making Mike do her dirty work, when it would be far simpler to just blow up the train? She's clearly not concerned with surgical precision, as the death toll mounts onboard the locomotive, whose brakes and electrical systems seem to be under her remote control.
The answer, of course, is that the story (by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle) does not exist to serve the needs of logic, but those of Neeson, who, as has become his habit in this sort of thing, delivers, at minimum, a modicum of guilty pleasure as the middle-aged, tender-but-tough Everyman in a tight spot. Here, those gratifications are truly minimal, as the actor's appeal, normally on display as grit, integrity and butt-kicking, are not enough to overcome the story's nonsensical premise. "The Commuter" may be set on the way home after a long, hard day at the office, but this movie feels less like happy hour than work — and uncompensated overtime at that.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some intense action/violence and crude language. 105 minutes.