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Why ‘The Commuter’ vs. ‘Proud Mary’ is Bigger Than a Just Box Office Battle

Liam Neeson will fight Taraji P. Henson for eyeballs and hearts of action movie fans.

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On Thursday night, Liam Neeson will be back doing what he does best with his latest film, The Commuter. This time, the action veteran plays a former cop fighting his way through a shadowy conspiracy to find a mysterious target on a Metro North train as it barrels towards the end of the line. The 65-year-old Irish actor has mastered the art of punching out his foes, whether they be Albanian sex-traffickers (Taken), domestic terrorists (Non-Stop), or wolves (The Grey).

This week, however, Neeson faces an unprecedented adversary — Taraji P. Henson.

That’s because the Empire actress is releasing her own action film, Proud Mary, on the same day, setting up a dramatic showdown of a different kind.

Hollywood has come under fire, metaphorically speaking, for few lead roles in action movies for actors and actresses of color. So, the sight of Henson, 47, tossing a thug through a glass window or firing a gun with a silencer should rightfully make an underserved movie audience feel, well, proud.

To be blunt, no one is going to confuse either movie opening Friday with Henson’s Hidden Figures or Neeson’s Schindler’s List. January is traditionally the dumping ground for studios to release movies that are neither big enough to compete with the tentpoles arriving as the weather gets warmer or good enough to merit a December release for award voters’ consideration.

Sony Screen Gems’s Proud Mary — a Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) directed shoot-’em-up in which Henson stars as the titular mob hit woman, whose well-planned routine is shattered when she’s forced to protect a young boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) — is not being screened in advance for critics, never a great vote of confidence by the distributor. Co-starring Danny Glover, the film looks like a new shade of lipstick on a ’70s blaxploitation entry that would have starred Pam Grier if it had been made in another era.

As for Lionsgate’s The Commuter, the flick is a silly B-movie premise elevated to a B-plus by a great supporting cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill. Both the train and story move fast enough to be exciting, but not so speedy to blur past he plot holes, despite director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Non-Stop) eye for staging a fight sequence.

The point here is not the number of thumbs up or a Rotten Tomatoes score. The metric that matters is going to be how well Proud Mary does in box office receipts, and if she can beat the king of the genre at his own game. Because a disappointing showing will just reinforce the prejudice held by many older white male executives in the film business: that action is man’s game. And usually a white man’s game, at that, because that mirrored the perceived ticket-buying audience.

Which is why it took Wonder Woman 75 years to get to the big screen. It turns out the box office disappointments of Elektra and Catwoman didn’t mean women wouldn’t pay to see a superhero movie; it meant they wouldn’t pay to see a badly written one.

Proud Mary may have been greenlit before the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations rocked Hollywood, and became the first domino in what is looking like a major sea change. But Henson’s movie arrives to challenge The Commuter at an opportune time. This is about more than just box office bragging rights.

May the best hero’s journey win.