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Short Take: The Commuter

(Jaume Collet-Serra, USA, Lionsgate, Opening January 12)

Compressing a decade of off-to-work routine into a single harrowing opening montage, The Commuter largely takes place on a commuter train on an embellished version of the Metro-North Hudson Valley Line northbound from Grand Central. Cash-strapped, newly unemployed Liam Neeson has been forced into participating in a sporadically violent hide-and-seek contest involving the unmasking of an anonymous witness, vying with fellow wage slaves for a stack of dirty dollars. The movie’s setting is an America still traumatized by the Great Recession, a place where corruption is endemic and the dollar the root of all evil. “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to,” quoth Neeson, just before flicking off a former Goldman Sachs employee.

The premise borrows a little from Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson’s previous jetliner-set Non-Stop (2014), though throughout his eight films the director has revealed himself as a constant tinkerer, busily reworking the instruction books of his game-movies. Along with a quite moving faith in the commonweal and in the indomitability of the noble human spirit—a throughline in the cinema of Collet-Serra, who always puts his protagonists through the wringer—The Commuter is blessed with some of the deftest setpieces in recent pop cinema memory, including one brisk, brutal close-quarters dust-up that recalls Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin.

Moral and muscular, it’s the action-movie illustration of Howard Zinn’s proverb, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”