During his mid-career reinvention as a hardbitten action leading man, Liam Neeson has formed an interesting alliance with the deft director Jaume Collet-Serra. While the Taken series and The Grey did a lot to position Neeson as the Robert Mitchum de nos jours, Collet-Serra – whose other films include the House of Wax Remake, Orphan and The Shallows – has handled Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, which all hinge on putting a Neeson character in a trap and giving him a limited amount of time to get out. Here, the star plays suburbanite Michael McCauley, who frankly admits to being ‘sixty years of age’ (Neeson was born in 1952) and a victim of the 2008 credit crunch who shifted jobs to take care of his family. Once a cop, with a supporting cast of pal (Patrick Wilson) and boss (Sam Neill) sat around in a New York bar, Michael has put in the time as an insurance salesman … but is now impersonally made redundant just as the big bills for his son’s college education are coming in.
Glumly settling into his last train commute home, he’s asked ‘a hypothetical question’ by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a svelte consultant in chic shoes who offers him a cash payout if he performs one simple task – identifying a fellow passenger (code-named Prynne) who has a ticket for the end of the line. He retrieves a down-payment from the toilet but has qualms about the mission, especially when a girl in a hoodie (Letitia Wright) gives him his wife’s wedding ring and Joanna’s mysterious aides casually shove a fellow traveller (familiar face Jonathan Banks) under a bus. Screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi do a neat job of tipping in bytes of information about the big ongoing conspiracy (Prynne is en route to a meeting with the FBI to blow the whistle on highly-placed persons) which make sense of the contrived central situation, and also manage thumbnail characterisations of the train riders Michael has to assess. It’s a whodunit in which the prime suspect is an innocent and those ruled out might well be killers, which is unusual enough to get attention. Partially shot in the UK, it interestingly fills the train with European actors – Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Florence Pugh, Andy Nyman, Colin McFarlane, Roland Moller – who give a great deal of heft to supporting roles. In fact, this is so well-cast in depth that it can land Elizabeth McGovern for the tiny role of the hero’s wife – she’s fine, of course, but this relies on her presence to establish her importance to the plot rather than giving her very much to do.
The Neeson of Collet-Serra’s films is less superheroic than the ‘very particular set of skills’ guy – though Joanna has targeted McCauley for his skills, she’s interested in his cop instincts rather than thumping people. Non-Stop, set on a flight, has Neeson searching for a mystery passenger and thwarting a plot – though his actions make him seem like a dangerous maniac. This reprises some elements from that, but has an intriguingly different plot motor. In Non-Stop and Run All Night, Neeson plays worn-out alcoholics who have to recover their action man skills. Here, it’s all about the economy, making this a rare thriller to address the fall-out of the global crisis – Michael McCauley has been unmanned by the wiping out of his savings and investments, giving up his gun and shifting into insurance, and it still hasn’t bought his family anything like security. The cash he gets for his unethical gig here is scattered to the winds, so he isn’t even likely to profit if he does go along with Joanna’s smoothly purred instructions. The most unlikeable passenger, a broker (Latif), spots his economic desperation and rebuffs his attempt to solicit investment advice, which is a cover for sussing out whether he’s Prynne, exactly diagnosing his loser status. Hearing that the man worked for Goldman Sachs, Michael gives him the finger and snarls ‘from the American Middle Class, fuck you!’
This opens with a subtly disorienting montage of Michael going through the motions of getting up and taking the train, mixing together interchangeable days in a set of jump cuts and the eerie image of a solid Neeson walking among sped-up shadows at a New York station. If this were the late 1960s or early ‘70s, this would be the set-up for an arty drama about executive level crack-up like Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement … and it’s still a daring opener for a thriller with a bit of a mind to back up its muscle. Like all good train movies, it offers a lot of characters and situations, with folks hopping on and off at every scheduled stop and constant twists and reversals. Yes, Neeson gets to hang off the outside of the train and lie under it – in a textbook suspense-squirm sequence which has a great wheels-grinding-into-the-camera shot – and the conversational mystery business eventually gives way to brutal fights in the unused carriage (the air con is out) and a satisfying last reel which goes even deeper into disaster movie territory.
In several senses, this is a terrific vehicle.