It’s hard to think of a more surprising action hero than Liam Neeson, especially if you ask the actor himself. In an interview to promote his new film, “The Commuter,” he was asked a seemingly simple question – How have you been? – and replied, “Can’t complain, haven’t been found out yet.” Asked by the interviewer, Stephen Colbert, to explain, the Irish actor said, “It’s waking up every morning and thinking, ‘I’m an actor, people are still paying me to do movies, beat up bad guys and stuff – I’m 65, and it’s great’ They’re gonna find out.”
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Neeson’s career is one of the most fascinating and diversified in Hollywood. In fact, it’s two different careers. He first gained fame in the theater and then in film, thanks to dramatic roles in the 1990s, including “Schindler’s List, “ “Michael Collins” and “Rob Roy.” His image morphed somewhat when he was cast in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” (1999), where he showed his abilities as a swordsman, and again in “Batman Begins” (2005). Then, exactly a decade ago, “Taken” was released, in which the 55-year-old Neeson officially became a leading action star. Since 2008, Neeson has been in an average of at least one action film a year, including two sequels to “Taken.”
“The Commuter” is Neeson's fourth collaboration with Spanish action-film director Jaume Collet-Serra, following “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night.” In it he continues to consolidate his strong posture as an individual not to be messed with. “Non-Stop” was about a volatile mystery on a passenger plane, which only the Liam Neeson character could solve, with the aid of his brain and his fists. The difference in “The Commuter” lies in the mode of public transportation.
This time Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, who commutes to New York from a suburb of the city every day. Until the economic crisis of 2008, he was a police officer, but then he lost all his savings and was forced to take a more lucrative job as an insurance salesman. But the economic instability continues to victimize him, and he loses this job, too.
On the way home on the train, wondering how to break the bad news to his wife and son, who’s enrolled for an expensive university degree, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) sits down opposite him. It turns out that she knows far too much about him. She makes him an offer: $75,000 in return for identifying and marking someone on the train who “doesn’t belong” there. For a former police officer who’s been taking the train for the past ten years, the task is straightforward and the money is good. But Michael is well aware that if he agrees to the terms, it will mean a death sentence for whoever it is that “doesn’t belong.” Nevertheless, he decides to find out who the person is, what the mysterious woman wants from him and how it’s possible to have a fistfight without falling off the train.
The collaboration between Collet-Serra and Neeson might feel like a replay, not least because “Non-Stop” also posited a high-tension action-packed mystery on a large, closed means of transportation, but for action fans the difference will be palpable. The similar point of departure allows the director to challenge himself anew in limited spaces in order to examine the boundaries of the genre and the budget. For the sake of comparison, “The Commuter” cost about $30 million, making it almost ten times cheaper than “Transformers 5.”
It’s true that the train from New York is narrow and stifling, but it’s precisely there that “The Commuter” succeeds in providing action that returns to pre-special-effects roots. The camera’s incessant movement back and forth along the train without consideration for walls or other barriers, turns the problem of a restricted space into an advantage. The insertion of small clues, which MacCauley collects thanks to his thorough acquaintance with most of the passengers, enables the plot to be propelled by tension as well as action.
In “The Commuter,” too, Neeson stands out as a hero who takes more punishment than he dishes out. That’s consistent with the action persona he’s forged for himself in the past decade: a representative of the old world who is forced to make order in the new world, which is ruled by enemies who are bigger, stronger and younger than he is. It’s his tormented and pained – yet also determined and moral – image that accords him an advantage in a reality that has lost its values and become dangerous. That’s how he gained his roughhewn glory in “Taken,” as a hero who rescues his daughter from a gang who traffic in women, and he continues to operate in the same way in “The Commuter,” when he battles public corruption.
For action fans, at least, Neeson’s tendency to play characters of similar essence is actually an advantage. One of the secrets of success of action movies is their ability to meet expectations. Everyone who saw a photograph of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Sylvester Stallone on a poster in the 1980s and 1990s knew why he bought a ticket – and mostly got what he entered the theater for. That kind of consistency in the action genre barely exists any longer in major box office hits, other than in Neeson films. But the spirit of the time has changed, and Neeson isn’t a young hero, muscular and trained in martial arts, like his predecessors – in fact, that’s a description of his enemies. His singularity as an action star lies precisely in his dramatic skills and his ability to express distress and anguish.
Though the big money in Hollywood is being spent on science fiction and superheroes, Neeson seems to be positioning himself as the deserving successor of the old action in the new era. All of this comes to the surface in “The Commuter,” which deals more directly with the persona that Neeson has created. This time he becomes, consciously and declaredly, the representative of tired generations – all those people who look out the window, no longer recognize the world and want only to rise up against it. Something like the weekly demonstrators in Tel Aviv against government corruption. The bastards changed the rules, and he is the embodiment of the middle class that’s buckling under the strain. When big capital and government meld into a single corrupt entity, the Liam Neeson character is again a fighter for social justice with a gun.
In the year ahead, we will at least be able to see Neeson in dramatic roles directed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, but his second career as an action star isn’t likely to suffer. “The Commuter” isn’t one of his best action movies, but it’s also not one of the worst. Fans of the genre are likely to find satisfaction here, too, in the film’s adherence to the familiar formula combined with new elements, but they’ll probably be the only ones.