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Taken… on a train! (A Commuter Review)

Decided to welcome the old MoviePass into 2018 yesterday and saw The Commuter with Liam Neeson. I would like to say that there aren’t going to be any spoilers in this review. And really, there aren’t. Except you know the story already because it’s a liamneeson movie. It’s Taken on a train. You see, there are many genres of movie… there’s romance, drama, horror, comedy, suspense, thriller, film noir, western, science fiction, and one of our newest emerging genres, liamneeson. I used to think that Liam Neeson was an action movie star. He’s not… he’s a liamneeson movie star. The genres are similar, in the same way horror, suspense and thriller are the similar. But they’re not the same. The liamneeson film is perhaps descended from the action film… but also from the thriller, the suspense, and perhaps even a bit from the comedy.

The basic formula of the liamneeson film is for an older gentleman, with a particular set of skills, who loves his family but perhaps has some problems relating to them because he’s kind of a stoic, is placed into an untenable situation by a miscellaneous bad guy where the family is threatened and he must use that particular set of skills to defeat the bad guy before an arbitrarily defined deadline when all will be lost. In doing so, the protagonist will run afoul of law enforcement because he’s not sure which members of it are corrupt and which ones he can trust. However, he has a strong moral code and can ultimately rely on his skills to get the job done. Oh, and he kills a lot of people. Liam Neeson is our finest liamneeson film star.

And this is that movie.

This is exactly that movie.

If you’ve never seen a liamneeson film before, I’d say this is a pretty good introduction to the genre. It’s by no means the best liamneeson film ever; that would be Taken. But this is very much Taken on a train. And it does a pretty good job of being Taken on a train too. I’d say it’s superior to his role in Non-Stop, aka Taken on a plane. And if you’re a fan of the liamneeson genre, well… you’re going to get that here. He’s an older gentleman, he has a particular set of skills. there are crooked cops, a family in danger, people getting killed. All the elements are there.

It certainly doesn’t have the charm of the first Taken. Of course, neither did the actual sequels. What really works for this is that they’ve tried to change it up a bit. Not just by adding the train (this was the problem with Non-stop). They tried to make him a different character so as to give the audience a reason to care about him in a different way than we have in other liamneeson movies. I mean, he’s not a TOTALLY different character. He’s still a stoic, older gentleman who has problems relating to his family. He still has a particular set of skills. But they sort of downplayed all of that. He’s less stoic. His failure to relate is less exaggerated, more like any other man dealing with the stresses of work, marriage, and parenting. His job is more normal. Rather than a black ops secret agent, he’s an insurance salesman.

The film really wants you to buy into his normalcy. And this is accomplished right away, by one of the most brilliant opening directorial choices I’ve seen in a film in recent memory. (Yes really!) A montage of him waking up in the morning, getting dressed, and speaking to his wife and son as he gets ready to catch his commuter train on the way to work. The scenes quickly cut to dozens of variations on the same routine. The hair and clothing change. The seasons and weather change. Sometimes the conversations are happy and sometimes sad. But the progression through the routine is constant. It’s unclear whether we’re seeing a montage of months or years. The monotony is strangely engaging, especially with the visuals that present it. The film makes you want to care about Neeson. You’re immediately invested in his life… as boring as it may be.

After the first ten minutes I felt like I might have been wrong about the movie. Maybe there was more to this than Taken on a train after all.

The problem is after that, the film remembers that it’s a liamneeson movie and forgets that it was trying to do something else. We suddenly find out that he’s not just an insurance salesman. He’s been doing it for a decade, but he’s a former cop. Furthermore the convoluted bad guy plot specifically revolves around the fact that Neeson’s cop skills, as well as his personality and the fact that he rides that specific train every day make him uniquely necessary for the plot. They also make him uniquely qualified to stop it.

And that kind of bugged me.

It’s not that I didn’t like the movie. I kind of did. It’s just that I felt like the opening 10-15 min were squandered. They could generate a much better movie. That said, they do connect the viewer to the character far more than would occur in your typical liamneeson film. There’s a reason to care about him. There’s a reason to see him not only as a stoic older gentleman killer, but a hero for the middle class. He represents both the frustration with middle-class monotony, inadequacy and unappreciation by management and the moral authority and dedication to hardwork that the middle class claims as its merits. And there was just enough to let me latch onto his life and wonder what would make this incarnation of the Neeson character different from the others. The problem is… he wasn’t. Once the plot the plot kicks in and the story becomes about him fighting the bad guys in the train, he is in effect identical to any other liamneeson protagonist. The set-up of his desk job or monotonous commute no longer seem to really matter.

Is the film worth watching? Sure. It always fun to see Neeson kick some ass utilizing a particular set of skills. There’s a reason he is our finest liamneeson actor. But there’s nothing special about this to make it something you HAVE to see. Not special… just particular.

★★½☆☆+? (2.5 out of 5 stars… plus a particular set of skills)



29 comments for “Taken… on a train! (A Commuter Review)

  1. January 13, 2018 at 5:43 am

    So I have two questions regarding the liamneeson genre. One, are there yet any examples you can cite of a liamneeson film that does not star Liam Neeson? Also, can you name any other nitch genres, such as The Tarantino?

    1. January 13, 2018 at 5:57 am

      Answering the second part…
      There is the Brat Pack genre, Adam Sandler genre, the Jackie Chan genre, and the Don Bluth genre, just for starters.

    2. January 13, 2018 at 6:19 am

      honestly, John Wick is essentially a liamneeson movie. I never got around to seeing it, but my impression of the Foreigner from last year was that it is essentially one as well, at least from the Trailer. is an article that has some of what vulture considers to be Taken inspired films. I don’t know that I agree on all of them, but genre classification is inherently hard.

      I don’t know that I would consider all of the things Michael Strauss mentioned to be genres. I absolutely wouldn’t consider the Tarantino film to be a genre. He has a directorial style, but the his films certainly hit different genres. Right now he’s focusing on the western. He’s also made a couple heist films, a war film, etc.

      Similar for Sandler. He’s really just making slapstick comedies with some gross-out moments for adults… quality aside, it’s not really any different from what Jim Carey, Rob Schneider or Kevin James are famous for.

      Jackie Chan might be closer… but really he’s just the martial arts cop mashup… or he was when he was younger… as he’s aged he’s obviously sort of built into his own legend in a way that makes him feel special.

      Obviously, I only named it the “liamneeson movie” because it was funny to do so and because Neeson makes SO MANY of them. But Taken isn’t even really the first one. It’s just good. Mel Gibson’s Ransom is essentially the same basic movie, and what Max and I used to use as the definitive example of that particular genre.

    3. January 13, 2018 at 6:44 am

      See Seagal, Steven. He even did a sequel on a train and a turn as a policeman.

    4. January 13, 2018 at 6:58 am

      I thought of the Steven Seagal movies. I’m not sure. In some respect, they definitely seem to fit. But somehow they also seem “different” in some weird way that I can’t quite put my finger on. Part of this is that so many of them are obviously so very very bad. But even Under Siege, which I’d argue is actually good just *feels* different in a way. Like, I feel like he is more trying to hit the Die Hard formula than he is trying to hit the Taken formula. And yes, in a lot of ways those are the same thing… but there’s something nebulously different there too.

    5. January 13, 2018 at 8:16 am

      I considered Seagal, but only after Van Damme. And while I think the two of them epitomize the style, I’d still say they only can be considered American Martial Arts actors. It’s a genre distinctly different from the Eastern Martial Arts movie (and honestly a good argument could be made to consider Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts movies as distinctively different as well, though less so than American ones). But naming it for JCVD or Seagal seems unfair to the other actors that have contributed to this genre (Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Sasha Mitchell, Michael Dudikoff, Cynthia Rothrock, etc).

    6. January 13, 2018 at 8:33 am

      and yet, somehow Seagal still *feels* closer to what Neeson is doing than Van Damme (or say Chuck Norris, who I think even more epitomizes the American Martial Arts film). Paging Meron Langsner who might have insight here.

      It’s not just the fight choreography aspect. I’m not trying to make a statement about any of their prowess, and in fact Neeson’s choreography is often REALLY BAD in general (the infamous scene where it takes 37 cuts to depict him climbing a fence being the most obvious example, even though it’s not even a “fight” per se It’s not just the fighting. There’s something about the narrative, the style, the tone, the themes, and the way they all combine that make them feel different.

    7. January 13, 2018 at 8:42 am

      Quick answer after a quick read:

      What often makes Segal movies “work” is that there’s a consistency in the “rules” of the choreography throughout. The rules themselves may be dumb, but there is a consistent fictional cause & effect. This is less true in Chuck Norris and Van Damm movies, and tends to be more true in Hong Kong/Chinese movies. Even when dealing in complete fantasy representations of what the body is capable of and how bodies interact, the rules stay the same.

    8. January 13, 2018 at 8:44 am

      There are a lot of parallels with superhero movies. Fans get frustrated when random new powers come out of nowhere and “don’t make sense.”

      Dramaturgical Consistency is probably the term we’re looking for.

    9. January 13, 2018 at 8:48 am

      I saw the Foreigner, it’s definitely a liamneeson movie.

      There’s also a liamneeson-related set of movies where the gruff skilled male figure isn’t actually related to the family/child he’s saving (e.g. Man on Fire).

    10. January 13, 2018 at 8:56 am

      Meron: There’s definitely some logic in that. I don’t know if it’s what I was looking for… but there’s definitely something there. I know that in Seagal world, a martial arts cook can side step automatic machine gun fire… it’s just something he knows how to do. In Van Damme world, maybe you can backflip over machine gun fire and land in the splits wedged between two movie vehicles… and 5 min later, get knocked out by an errant dodgeball throw.

      And that’s probably part of it. Seagal (and Neeson… and Willis I guess) are presenting a world where a man with an exceptional set of particular skills can get the job done…. it won’t be pretty… there are consequences, but the job gets done. Van Damme, Morris, and even Lee and Chan are more magical being. It’s like the message of the Van Damme/Lee crowd is that with enough skill one can ascend to godhood, whereas Neeson/Willis is saying under harsh enough circumstances “a REAL MAN™” will make any sacrifice to do what’s right. Seagal’s movies fit in the latter camp, but they maybe seem weird because Steven Seagal the man actually believes that he is a god and won’t let the characters that he portrays have the weaknesses that would put him in the regular man camp.

    11. January 13, 2018 at 9:02 am

      My book in progress (based on my dissertation) has a whole lot about this. For a quick(ish) version for those following along I did a talk on some of the principles recorded here:

    12. January 13, 2018 at 10:15 am

      Tagging Katya Gorecki and Wayne Wise because I’m pretty sure Meron Langsner’s talk there is basically enough for a VoxPopcast episode in and of itself… which he would be the guest on because obviously he wants to and I’m not allowing him to say no anyway.

  2. January 13, 2018 at 6:15 am

    So it sounds like you have some more specific ideas for what they could’ve done to incorporate his particular character into the action part of the film?

    1. January 13, 2018 at 6:29 am

      Sure… I mean, I wasn’t trying to spoil it any more than I did. And I wasn’t really thinking about specific things that I could have changed… but from a very trivial way, Neeson’s character in this is a former cop and current life insurances salesman. But everything he does once the action starts is recalling his detective skills. It’s all about being able to fight or being able to deduce things that any cop would do. It might have been interesting if he were specially qualified because he actually understood nuances of insurance somehow AND cop work… in some way that anyone who was just one or the other couldn’t.

      But even more so than his specific job skills, I would have liked to seen the film utilize the nuances of his specific personality more. He’s not a blacks ops guy here… He doesn’t have the level of particular skills that he does in Taken. Or he shouldn’t. But he’s also not quite as emotionally distant. He’s much more of a “regular guy.” Middle class…. good family man (or at least he tries). But once the action gets rolling, it doesn’t matter. He handles everything in exactly the same way that Bryan Mills (the hero from Taken) would. So that means it doesn’t matter whether you are a black ops specialist, air marshal (Non-Stop) or life insurance salesman… things apparently turn out exactly the same.

    2. January 13, 2018 at 2:39 pm

      Caveat, I haven’t seen the movie. My interpretation of what Mav is saying:
      A much more interesting opportunity to develop a character, based on what Mav wrote about the intro to the movie, would be to have it based on an everyman (insurance agent, secretary, pipe-fitter) as opposed to a police officer or ex-green beret.
      What would an insurance agent do? How would his background, and work with insurance claims or adjusting or sales, and movies he’s seen (especially those of the liamneeson genre) play into how the character acted and tried to solve the situation?
      It makes it a more relatable idea. What would Mav do? What would you do?
      Falling Down (defense engineer), The Game (investment banker)… movies like that are with an average joe in a non-average situation.

    3. January 13, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      I was very much thinking about Falling Down, actually, for exactly that reason.

    4. January 13, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    5. January 13, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      I need to watch Falling Down. I was working for the DoD when it came out.

    6. January 13, 2018 at 2:54 pm

      I didn’t realize you’d never seen it.

  3. January 13, 2018 at 7:12 am

    mav curios your opinions of walk among the tombstones anc run all night …i really like those they had a different twist

    1. January 13, 2018 at 7:15 am

      I’m aware of both, but oddly enough never watched either of them. I wanted to see both, but there are so many movies that it’s tricky and sometimes I just miss stuff.

  4. January 13, 2018 at 8:20 am

    I am curious, is there a difference between a liamneeson movie and a limaneeson movie? Maybe the latter is a liamneeson movie that is set in Peru? ?

    1. January 13, 2018 at 8:24 am

      haha! I knew I’d make that typo. And I meat to go back through and search for them but forgot.

    2. January 13, 2018 at 8:25 am

      Thanks for helping my husband better appreciate my sense of humor. ?

    3. January 13, 2018 at 8:34 am

      You *meat* to go through? Lol

    4. January 13, 2018 at 8:34 am

      Bight Mei!

  5. January 13, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    I didn’t even remember the name of this movie…when I saw the preview I just thought, “Oh! It’s Taken on a Train!” and didn’t bother to look at the actual title.

    1. January 14, 2018 at 4:16 am

      I’m pretty sure it’s double listed. I’m sure if you go to the theater and ask for a ticket to taken on a train, the right thing will happen.

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