LOS ANGELES — There has, thus far, been a pleasing interchangeability to the titles in the banging, clattering action oeuvre cultivated by Liam Neeson and Spanish genre maestro Jaume Collet-Serra. “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” sound so tersely generic as to be slyly ironic, and that hint of playing-dumb humor extends to their gleefully absurd thriller mechanics: All three put rather a lot of crafty thought into their empty-headed pleasures.
“The Commuter” sounds more tastefully sedate by comparison, but don’t be fooled. Neeson and Collet-Serra’s whooshing, whiplash-inducing fourth collaboration could as easily be titled “Run Non-Stop Into the Unknown” — a moving-train whodunit that makes Kenneth Branagh’s jacked-up “Murder on the Orient Express” remake look like “Jeanne Dielman” by comparison, it’s so concerned with its own sheer speed that any semblance of storytelling logic is left waving from the platform.
That’s not necessarily a problem in the Collet-Serra Cinematic Universe, but “The Commuter’s” breakneck incoherence — not to mention a generally dour demeanor, shorter on incidental humor than most of the helmer’s work — makes it a notch less fun than those previous ex-trash-aganzas.
Coming after the tight, laser-focused precision of last year’s terrific shark suspenser “The Shallows,” this noisy, sure-to-be-popular chunk of January multiplex filler suggests Collet-Serra would do well to explore further corners of the B-movie realm. But that’s not to deny the transient pleasures of “The Commuter,” a film that enthusiastically puts the humble passenger car through almost as many mechanical acrobatics as any “Fast and Furious” hot rod, in the process gifting us with the line, “Between the train and the people, I always knew it would be the train.” Given the depth of character development and human investment in the narrative, action-rapt audiences may feel likewise.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a clearer moment-to-moment sense of what’s simply going on in “The Commuter.” The film commences the bafflement from the off, with a needlessly tricksy opening-credits sequence, rife with repeated fades to black, that splits and splices timelines — all for the sake of establishing the thoroughly mundane morning routine of Michael MacCauley (Neeson), a gray-suited insurance salesman and family man who commutes daily between his Manhattan office and his well-cushioned upstate home.
Not that you’d cast Neeson, of course, as an insurance guy without some manner of meaner past that has taught him some tougher skills: Turns out that McCauley used to work as an ace police profiler until a decade ago, before trading in his badge for a more sedate suburban life with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, vastly overqualified) and kids.
That background — and his ongoing friendship with troubled cop Murphy (Patrick Wilson) — go some way toward explaining the murky cloak-and-dagger that ensues, though the head-scratchers pile up faster than the revelations. On his Metro-North train home, McCauley is approached by the enigmatic Joanna (Vera Farmiga, silkily sinister as ever) with an impromptu mission: Find an unidentified fellow passenger transporting critical cargo, or risk the lives of not just the remaining travelers, but his own family at home.
It’s a basic enough ultimatum, but the further McCauley looks into the criminal conspiracy at hand, the less sense it makes to him and viewers alike. Random red herrings and Dan Brown-level literary riddles are the order of the day as the literal end of the line approaches; Neeson, his brow dutifully furrowed, musters what gravelly authority he can as he profiles a motley crew of other commuters — a classily cast bunch ranging from Jonathan Banks to “Lady Macbeth” breakout Florence Pugh — for clues.
Lest audiences put too much tortuous thought into the motives or endgame of pretty much anyone in this scenario, Collet-Serra cranks up this locomotive as he knows best, building as much breathless, senseless real-time momentum as possible before train and plot go simultaneously, albeit spectacularly, off the rails. Even when Neeson isn’t darting urgently from carriage to carriage, cinematographer Paul Cameron (working in shades of five o’clock tan that match the muddiness of the puzzle) makes the talkiest scenes antsy with handheld camerawork; the fevered, no-time-to-think atmosphere is maintained by editor Nicholas De Toth. Incidentally, he’s the son of filmmaker Andre, director of the original “House of Wax” that was later remade by Collet-Sera — “The Commuter” may be fast, but not so engrossing that your mind can’t ponder these degrees of separation at the same time.
Even the daftest, dooziest set pieces here don’t have quite the clarity or invention of Collet-Serra’s most vigorous action choreography — nor of such superior rail-bound heart-pounders as “Unstoppable” or either version of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” But you sense such inevitable comparisons on the film’s mind as well as ours. Whether at his most inspired or his most workmanlike, Collet-Serra may just be the heir apparent to Tony Scott: an eager showman and a clock-conscious conductor of thrills, whether the script has earned them or not.