There was a point a few years ago when I started to develop an active phobia of being beaten to death by Liam Neeson.
It’s because his career took that weird left turn when he was cast as serial killer John Taken in the enormously popular Taken franchise, which includes such dynamic films as Taken, Taken 2, Taken 3, Non-Stop, Unknown, Run All Night, and The Good Mother. In the most body-count-obsessed series since the Death Wish films, John Taken murdered his way through 11 or 12 different Eastern European countries and every major American city, and most of those murders were committed bare-handed as the 7’4” Neeson would batter some poor bad guy with those giant bear paws of his.
At this point, though, my phobia has faded, and my main takeaway after watching Neeson fight one of the myriad bad guys he manages to kill in this film is that I hope they had a chair waiting for him between takes, because he’s starting to look a little frail for this kind of nonsense. I’d like to keep cracking wise about the very weird filmography of Jaume Collet-Serra, but he seems to be going through the motions now the same way Neeson is, and it’s all just so damn dispiriting.
In this one, John Taken (Neeson) is an ex-cop/insurance salesman (as they do) who takes the same commuter train every day. One day, just after he is fired, he is approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who makes him a proposition: if he finds someone on the train who does not belong there, he will be given $100,000. It’s a lot like Non-Stop, the movie where Neeson played John Taken, an air marshall who has to get some money transferred to someone or people on the plane start to die, and like that movie, it’s totally ridiculous. These movies are just exercises in wheel-spinning. It’s all about getting Neeson running up and down the length of a train while an ensemble of red herrings keeps him pinballing around long enough to justify calling this a feature film, and if that’s what you’re making, why not have real fun with it?
Collet-Serra has made a career out of directing movies that are packed with the ridiculous, almost like he sets these dares for himself. But there’s no conviction to the lunacy anymore. Neeson looks embarrassed by much of this one, and he can’t sell some of the truly dumb things he is asked to do. Vera Farmiga appears to have shot her role in the film between takes on one of the Conjuring films, complete with the same wardrobe, and if you can’t do the math between Patrick Wilson’s walk-on cameo in the first ten minutes and the mysterious identity of the bad guy, then congratulations, you’ve never seen a film before. If you want a stark lesson in the difference between great writing for women and what is normally written for women, check out Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, and then check out her role here.
Tech credits are entirely professional, but that’s like complimenting the film for being in focus and in color. If there’s any great sin here, it’s that we don’t have decades left of Neeson as a leading man, and we should be making better use of him now. When they were making this one, I’m sure no one set out to make a “January movie,” but that’s what this is. It is a January movie, through and through, and by February, it will have dissolved completely, like a snowflake on a tongue.
Running time: 104 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic