If it’s January, Liam Neeson must be punching people (or wolves). In “The Commuter,” directed by regular Neeson wrangler Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop,” “Run All Night”), the people who need punching are on the evening train from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, which insurance man and former police officer Michael MacCauley (Neeson) rides every single day and usually does not have to punch anyone. On this occasion, however, he is approached by a beautiful, enigmatic woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who eventually establishes the scenario: Michael must find a certain person on the train and get that person’s bag. Michael will be paid $100,000 for this. Joanna doesn’t mention any consequences if Michael chooses not to take the job, but once she’s off the train he learns that his wife and son are in danger, because of course they are. Better get punchin’!
So it’s that kind of movie: a pulpy, mildly intense potboiler where a man is forced to perform tasks while under constant (some might say impossible) surveillance, receiving messages and instructions at crucial points in a manner indicating extraordinary (some might say impossible) planning among multiple conspirators. And it’s pretty good at being that kind of movie! The screenplay (by first-timers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi, with rewrites by “Non-Stop” polisher Ryan Engle) keeps us in the dark with Michael, gradually revealing who’s behind all this, what’s in the bag, and what the cops played by Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill in one early scene have to do with it. Michael’s police instincts kick in; he’s on this commuter train every day, so he knows which passengers aren’t usually here and are therefore potential suspects. He has to interact with his usual commuter buddies without letting on that anything is amiss. When everything is over, a passenger says, “Next time, I’m takin’ the bus!” You know. That kind of movie.
It eventually gets a bit too preposterous, going off the rails (get it?) as the conspiracy gets wilder and wilder. As is often the case, we come to realize that the villains’ plan was far more elaborate and complicated than it needed to be, though of course that’s part of the fun. Collet-Serra keeps the camera moving, swooping and swirling between train cars and through windows, doing impossible things to hold our attention while Michael punches his way to justice in a respectably forgettable, good-while-it-lasts action thriller.
B- (1 hr., 44 min.; )