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Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson in The Commuter.

Jay Maidment/Lionsgate

3 out of 4 stars

The Commuter
Written by
Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle
Directed by
Jaume Collet-Serra
Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Neill

In the past decade, ever since Liam Neeson shed any pretense of becoming a high-drama prestige actor and doubled down on genre sleaze, the man has fought the following things on-screen: Wolves (The Grey). Albanian sex traffickers (Taken). Brooklyn gangsters (Run All Night). Demigods (Clash of the Titans). Fathers of Albanian sex traffickers (Taken 2). Skyjackers (Non-Stop). Russian sex traffickers (Taken 3). Aliens (Battleship). And a box of Trix cereal (Ted 2). The man likes a scrap. But he's never had quite as ludicrous, and ludicrously entertaining, a fight as in The Commuter, which is essentially Liam Neeson versus a train.

At one point in the film – which seems more like a throwaway Key & Peele gag than a real-life motion-picture production playing 2,000-plus screens this weekend – Neeson literally kicks a speeding locomotive over and over, in the hope that the physical strength of a 60-year-old man (his character's age; in reality, the actor is 65) can overpower the mighty steel and iron of an 38,000-kilogram runaway railway car. It is a so-very-stupid moment in the Liam Neeson vs. Everything Else genre – but one that is made by smart-enough people to balance its inherent idiocy, achieving some sort of platonic ideal of Dumb Cinema in the process.

Most of the credit should be given to director Jaume Collet-Serra, who in just six years has become the master of Liam Neeson trash cinema. Although Neeson first entered this stage of his career with Pierre Morel's 2008 Eurosploitation effort Taken, Collet-Sera guided the actor through 2011's Unknown (Liam Neeson vs. Berlin), 2014's Non-Stop and 2015's Run All Night. Each film was more compulsively watchable than the last, with both director and star fine-tuning how much narrative nonsense audiences could stand, so long as Neeson throat-punched enough people and bellowed into his cellphone so many times. Now, with The Commuter – tag line: LIVES ARE ON THE LINE – the pair have almost perfected the high art of the lowbrow thriller.

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This time around, Neeson plays Michael, a former NYPD officer turned Manhattan insurance salesman. One day, on his daily commute back to the suburbs, a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga, another Collet-Serra veteran from his truly absurd 2009 horror Orphan), approaches Michael with a tantalizing offer: If he can identify a passenger "who shouldn't be here" by the time the train hits the end of the line, he'll get $100,000. If not, his wife and teenage son die.

Don't think about the story too much, because no one else does. Red herrings are packed into the train cars like sardines and each new twist seems to contradict the one that came before it. The film also indulges in the Law & Order Rule, wherein the real villain is a giant mystery … until you consider the familiar character actor who popped up in the beginning of the film and, hey, where did he go anyway?

Instead of fretting about plot holes so large they could swallow a subway – unfortunately, no, this doesn't happen – focus on how well Neeson has become at playing a panicked paterfamilias, and how confidently Collet-Serra shoots the confined environs. There is some egregious CGI on display here when it comes to explosions and one long sequence shot that charts the train's length, but the director mostly relies on swooping in and around physical sets, and staging visceral fist fights.

Driven by someone else, The Commuter could have derailed a dozen times over. But with Collet-Sera in the conductor's seat, and Neeson his increasingly eager attendant, the film stays on track. And if you think I should feel guilty about employing so many train puns, then The Commuter 's smart-stupid appeal just might not be up your … ticket.

The Commuter opens across the country Jan. 12

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