It had seemed, for a little while there, that Liam Neeson had tired of the "AARP action hero" phase of his career: Run All Night, his third thriller with director Jaume Collet-Serra, came out early in 2015, and since then it's been nothing but respectable roles in respectable movies: a small but hugely critical part in Martin Scorsese's very methodical and grave Silence, a big mo-cap and vocal part in the the solemn A Monster Calls, and the lead in a political biopic about Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, which nobody in the world saw, but which I'm sure was very sober and historically neat. And he somehow ended up in a Korean action film called Operation Chromite playing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which I suppose could go either way.

At any rate, the three-year drought ends here, with The Commuter, his fourth collaboration with Collet-Serra, and their second which drops Neeson's character on a tube-shaped mass-transit vehicle where Neeson has to solve a crime before the vehicle reaches its destination, and in the process makes it look like he's gone nuts and has taken all the other passengers hostage, and there is a shady, mysterious woman played by an actor way the fuck overqualified for such a tiny nothing role. The last one was Non-Stop, in 2014, and it was set on a plane. The Commuter is set on train headed north from Manhattan to the suburbs. And if I may say so, a plane is a better location for a thriller, yet The Commuter is the better film - probably the best of the Collet-Serra/Neeson ventures, even, though there is a pretty narrow range of quality between all of them.

The title clues us in to the variable that's being played with this time around: Neeson's character, ex-cop Michael MacCauley, is a working schlub, dragging himself ever day from his family's upper-middle class home in Tarrytown to the city, where he works in an impersonal glass skyscraper selling life insurance. In the film's one aesthetically distinctive gesture, the opening credits sequence sees his routine play out across dozens of little moments, fragmenting his morning into repetitive gestures (turn off the alarm clock, wake up his teenage son (Dean-Charles Chapman), chat with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), ride with her to the train station), showing us that no matter what's going on any given morning (sometimes he interrupts his son in the middle of sexting, sometimes he and his wife are fighting, sometimes it's raining), Michael is basically a boring person with an unending, unsatisfying, but reliably static lifestyle. It says something, I think, that this is the film's one big stylistic extravagance, and also that it hasn't been done very well by the post-production team (the sound editing is a little bit off). And that's just fine: we do not go to films like The Commuter hoping to be dazzled, but instead to see how well the old formulas go this time.

Pretty well, is the answer. The real narrative starts out as a mystery and then turns into an action film, and it's a solid version of both. Michael, on the day he is unceremoniously fired, is offered $100,000 by a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga, wasted in a grossly insufficient role even by Vera Farmiga standards). All he needs is to find somebody with a bag, who isn't a regular commuter on this line, getting off at Cold Spring. The name and sex of the somebody is unknown, though they are using the false name "Prynne", nor does Joanna know what the bag looks like. Michael is intrigued enough by the puzzle, and the $25,000 down payment, to start figuring out what's going on, prowling up and down the train, from end to end, several times, though he naturally assumes that Joanna is hiding something and is up to no good. Spoiler alert: she is, and she is. But as insurance, she's kidnapped Michael's family.

The Commuter adds no new wrinkles to what feels, overall, like an awfully familiar scenario; the shocking twists are pretty much exactly what they ought to be, and when we finally meet Prynne, their identity is no more nor less arbitrary than if they'd been any of the other half-dozen candidates Michael ineptly interrogates during his sweeps of the train. Oh well. Pity the viewer who enters this film for its story; the reasons to watch this are firstly, Neeson's unmatched ability to add a layer of sad humanity to the business of yelling and punching and hanging off the side of a train, and secondly, the "bringing a pot to a boil" gradualism with which the film cranks up the tension; this is in no small part because of Paul Cameron's cinematography, which closely attends to the sun lowering and setting over the course of the train ride, creating a deepening sense of gloom as well as providing the most subtle, subconscious kind of ticking clock. But it's also thanks to the "and then there were none" structure of Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle's screenplay, with every new dead end in Michael's investigation (coupled with a bit more of a disheveled look in Neeson's eyes, and tightness in his voice) ratcheting the tension up one more notch.

And of course, there are action scenes: fewer than one might have wanted or expected, but what's there is excellent (bar some lousy CGI in a big sequence near the end). One fight scene, in particular, makes especially excellent use of the layout of a passenger train to funnel the movement of the characters through the space, and provide them with objects to interact with and dodge around, and that's all I'll say about it; it's an excellent scene, though, and probably the worthiest reason to watch the film at all.

None of this is extraordinary or unexpected: even the emotional arc laced through the movie, hinging on Michael's sense of uselessness as a 60-year-old with rusty skills and no job, is kind of just the thing you get with Neeson action movies, and he's had better arcs. I'm also not terribly impressed with the film's noncommittal treatment of economic desperation: the MacCauleys are dead broke and barely able to afford college, and this is the fuel for everything else that follows, but it's more of a feint towards seriousness, discarded as soon as the film can move on to something splashier. And even when it's present, it's utterly artless, with scenes that all but ask Neeson to turn to the camera and mournfully intone, in his gravelly brogue, platitudes about the unfairness of the modern American economy that the film has no interest in developing beyond noting that bosses suck. If it is impressive at all, it's only because a film like this needs no thematic resonance at all, and when it has any, it seems smarter than it actually is. But that's fine too. The Commuter didn't need to be smart, didn't even need to pretend to be smart, and it's a taut enough thriller that whatever else is wrong with it (some messy handheld camerawork, too much editing, stereotypical characters), it's still a satisfying bit of boilerplate action cinema.