It’s been almost ten years since “Taken” became an unlikely hit and in turn made Liam Neeson an unlikely action star. One could argue that Neeson is the action star equivalent of wine. The older he gets, the more badass he looks and sounds. In “The Commuter,” Neeson plays a 60-year-old man who manages to survive multiple fistfights, as well as a train crash that would kill Jason Bourne. In the back of your head, you know that this is preposterous, silly, and even downright stupid. Neeson plays the part so well, however, that you can’t help but go along for the ride.
The best scene in the film is the opening credits, as we’re introduced to Michael MacCauley (Neeson). The sequence takes place over several months, although it’s brilliantly edited to feel like just a single morning, emphasizing the repetitive nature of Michael’s daily routine. He wakes up at 6:00 A.M. next his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), takes a train to work, and puts in his eight hours at an insurance agency. Michael’s routine takes a twisted turn, though, as a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on his commute home. She offers Michael $100,000 to single out a person on the train who doesn’t belong. Michael soon begins to unravel a conspiracy that puts several people at risk, including his family.
The setup here is worthy of a Hitchcockian classic like “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” or “The Lady Vanishes.” Of course “The Commuter” never comes close to reaching the brilliance of a Hitchcock picture, instead taking the safer action route. On that basis, though, it’s by no means poorly made. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously worked with Neeson in “Unknown,” “Run All Night,” and “Non-Stop,” knows how to turn in an intense, well-shot thriller. That’s exactly what we get, which will leave the core demographic satisfied, but others longing for something a little more.
“The Commuter” might have actually earned comparison to a modern “Murder on the Orient Express” if it made slightly better use of its supporting cast. The film features several commendable character actors, including Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, and Sam Neill. Yet, none of them are really utilized to their full potential. Everybody seems to take a backseat with Neeson behind the wheel. Then again, Neeson is the reason why audiences are going to buy a ticket and he once again has a lot of fun in this role.
It’s hard to say how much longer Neeson will be able to milk this aging tough guy caricature. Sure, stunt men and CGI will always be there to fill in the blanks, but can he really pull this part off with his seventies and eighties on the horizon? Well for now, Neeson isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. Even if certain tropes from his films are growing tired, he keeps us coming back with his charisma and gruff charm. I’m totally onboard for more senior action flicks, assuming they have more integrity than “Taken 2” and “3.”
Maze Runner 2049 **1/2
My feelings towards “The Maze Runner” movies are very mixed. The first film, while nothing groundbreaking, at least had a gripping sense of mystery and a premise worthy of a “Twilight Zone” episode. 2015’s “The Scorch Trials” threw all of those interesting ideas out the window, becoming a straight-up “Hunger Games” knockoff. That shouldn’t come as a massive surprise, seeing how this franchise primarily exists to bank on the success of Katniss Everdeen’s story. Since the young adult craze has started to die out anyway, “The Death Cure” is about three years too late. Of course the filmmakers and studio can’t exactly be blamed for the movie’s poor timing, as Dylan O'Brien’s on set injuries delayed production.
O’Brien reprises his role as Thomas, who just might be the key to saving humanity as a deadly disease continues to plague the world. Thomas is once again joined by… well… I can’t really remember any of the other characters, which is this franchise’s main problem. While the actors all do a fine job, Thomas’ friends are interchangeable and have few – if any – defining characteristics. You know the one kid in Stephen King’s “It” that everyone forgets about and is nobody’s favorite? Imagine if they just made about four or five of them and you’d basically have the primary ensemble here.
The other supporting characters aren’t much more interesting and come off as unenthusiastically clichéd. You’ve got Kaya Scodelario as the traitor who’s bound to reteam with our heroes, Patricia Clarkson as the big bad government figure who sees the light, and Aidan Gillen as the other authority figure who gets no redemption. Giancarlo Esposito is also there, although he’s never utilized to his full potential. Nobody is. Everyone just seems to be there to collect a paycheck and nothing more.
As half-assed as “The Death Cure” can feel at times, director Wes Ball’s action sequences do brighten matters up a bit. There’s an especially impressive set piece involving a bus that manages to be inventive, thrilling, and humorous all at once. While it’s a well-crafted movie on the whole, “The Death Cure” also borrows from one too many other franchises. In addition to “The Hunger Games,” the look of the film was clearly influenced by “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner.” Huh, maybe this movie should’ve been called “Maze Runner 2049.” Ultimately, there’s a been there, done that mentality to the whole experience which never lets up.
Of all the “Maze Runner” movies, “The Death Cure” isn’t the worst, but it’s arguably the most uneven. For every moment that’s legitimately fun, exciting, or dramatic, there’s another that’s redundant and monotonous. It’s a middle of the road conclusion to a franchise that was always average at best. For what it’s worth, this was probably the best ending we could’ve hoped for and if the previous two films had you at the edge of your seat, “The Death Cure” will leave you satisfied. Personally, I’m just glad they didn’t try to split the final book into two movies.