By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Already respected as a serious screen actor, with a 1983 Best Actor Oscar nomination long since on his resume, Liam Neeson reinvented himself in 2008 as an action star.

Thus were we Taken for a ride in what would turn out to be his signature trilogy.

He’s got a ride of an ever-so-slightly different sort for us – yep, another violent misadventure — as the title character in The Commuter.

He plays Michael MacCauley, an ex-NYPD detective (with the obligatory action-flick skill set) who’s been working as an insurance salesman, but who has just lost his job, downsized five years before his planned retirement at a time when his son is about to go off to college.

So he’s already having a pretty bad day.

It gets worse.

He gets caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute on the train from Manhattan to his home in upstate New York.

Vera Farmiga plays a mysterious passenger who offers MacCauley a much-needed $100,000 if he will just help them to find an otherwise unknown passenger.

Y’know, a Sesame Street game of “Which passenger doesn’t belong?,” but with life-and-death stakes.

And you don’t need me to inform you that there’s a heck of a lot more to it than that.

If you’re thinking, “Hey, it’s Non-Stop, but on a train instead of a plane,” well, you’re in the zone.

The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between Barcelona-born director Jaume Collet-Sera and Neeson (Non-Stop, Up All Night, Unknown) and they seem to feel that their audience will follow them anywhere.

Because anywhere is where it proceeds to.

Far-fetched?  Yikes.  Pack your suspension of disbelief in a roomy backpack: you’re gonna need it.

The screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip De Blasi, and Ryan Engle, based on a story by Willinger and De Blasi, efficiently lays out the protagonist’s ordinary daily routine in the opening reels so that this day’s extraordinary circumstances register as just that.

But after anchoring the film in reality during the setup, the narrative offers twists and turns so preposterous and unconvincing from the midpoint on, unintended laughter soon becomes the default setting.

Much of the exposition is only half-explained and the performers don’t seem any more clued in to the specifics than we are.  With this kind of arbitrary plotting, the intended suspense soon dissipates.

Neeson contributes his usual rough and gruff, oddly comforting presence, as is his wont in his action pieces.

And that is, for devotees of the genre, probably enough.

But prepare to laugh at rather than with.

So we’ll board 2 stars out of 4 for the occasionally-exciting-but more often-infuriating ticking-clock thriller, The Commuter.

And look for an empty seat or two in the been-there-done-that car when the film goes – appropriately enough — right off the rails.

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