At 65-years-old, Liam Neeson is kind of a pop cultural icon. His entire career has been built on the versatile creativity that’s hard to find in Hollywood these days. Unlike his peers – Jackie Chan (63), Steven Seagal (65) – who are known for their action schtick in films, Neeson has subverted the expectations of being just an action-movie star. He has dipped a toe into the beloved Star Wars. And, in 2005, he gave his voice to the lion Aslan in the blockbuster fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Still in the mid-aughts, he voiced the kindly Father Sean who converts Bart and Homer to Catholicism in an episode of The Simpsons. Some gamers might not know this, but Neeson voiced James, the main character’s father in the third series of the post-apocalyptic game Fallout.
You are probably wondering if I’ll ever talk about Neeson in the delightful, if frustrating Non-Stop, or even the critically acclaimed Taken trilogy, which is now a still-running TV series and spawned a culturally ubiquitous and overused meme in modern memeology. Those aforementioned films now feel like useful precursors for the tonally similar The Commuter, the action thriller directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring, well, you guessed it… Liam Neeson as the hero. But it’s not that simple.
We have seen Neeson take down bad guys and wriggle out from existentially difficult situations; Neeson is Neeson because we are always presented with the binary of good and evil, and taught that good always triumphs at the end of the day. But, without sounding ageist, what you haven’t seen is the geriatric actor still thinking he still has it. In The Commuter, Neeson plays Michael, an insurance salesman whose daily commute home quickly becomes anything but routine. After being confronted by a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) on a train, Michael is blackmailed into finding the identity of a passenger on his train before the last stop. As he works against the clock to solve the puzzle, Michael is unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death stakes for himself and his fellow passengers.
Before the plot starts to develop, we meet Michael’s wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern of the DownTon Abbey fame) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman of The Game of Thrones fame) all warmly knitted as a family. In a cascade of bad events, Michael goes from losing his job one morning and left to ponder the ramifications of this on a train back home. The themes of fatherhood and responsibility are mildly applied to compound Michael’s misery. Without a job, he knows that he won’t be able to sustain Danny’s college education. By extension, The Commuter poses a prickly question: Are men suddenly disposable if they can no longer provide for their families?
Liam Neeson can still throw a badass punch, and the film’s histrionics oscillates between deadly, upclose combat and manually disjoining a train. All these happens within a tight, claustrophobic space, and I saw the train as a blunt metaphor for life, inexorably continuous even while we privately answer the important question of who we are as human beings. But TheCommuter runs into a predictable farce sometimes. And its characters, later on, all feel gleefully relatable and unrelatable all at once, their lives shoehorned to fit the film’s aim for thrills. This is Neeson’s last action film as America’s beloved cultural hero, and I’m not fabricating this: a surviving male passenger from the train describes him as such in a statement to the police – a hero. It’s a semi-fictitious farewell that’s a bit on-the-nose. But it will do. The train might have chaotically derailed but, with Liam Neeson, it was worth the ride.