The Commuter (2018)
Every Passenger Is A Piece Of The Puzzle.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Liam Neeson became a surprise action star with the lean, mean, white-knuckle thriller Taken (2008), where he portrayed an unassuming man with a particular set of skills. Over the past decade, Neeson has helped cultivate his own type of B-movie sub genre, where he’d essentially tap into that ‘one man army’ persona from his Taken movies. Three of these ‘adventures’ were collaborations with Spanish genre-film maestro Jaume Collet-Serra — 2011’s Unknown, 2014’s Non-Stop and the crime drama Run All Night (2015) — all of which proved to be slick, well-made albeit empty-headed entertainers. The latest addition to this (continuing?) trend is The Commuter, a Hitchcockian sorta thriller — think Strangers on a Train (1951) or North by Northwest (1959) — that sees an average man caught up in a very unusual situation.
Like every other entry in the stylish Neeson/ Collet-Serra sub-genre, this new movie features an intriguing premise and a couple of impressively choreographed action sequences yet never reaches the gleefully silly heights of the pair’s earlier efforts, its two kinda untested writers, Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi — with Ryan Engle, Non-Stop (2014), brought in for re-writes — failing to utilize the bonkers idea of staging a whodunit in the confines of a moving train.
Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an ex-New York cop-turned insurance salesman who’s struggling to make ends meet, Michael and his wife Karen (an underused Elizabeth McGovern) trying to pay their mortgage off and put their son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) through college. Every workday, Michael takes a commuter train from Westchester County in New York to midtown Manhattan for his white-collar gig. On one particular day, Michael is unfairly laid off after a decade of service (because he’s hit 60), the cash-strapped family man turning to his old pal Officer Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for a bit of relief. On the commute home, MacCauley is preparing to deliver the bad news to his missus when he’s distracted by a flirty passenger he’s never seen before, one who introduces herself as Joanna (Vera Farmiga). After some friendly chitchat, Joanna gives Michael a hypothetical proposition, which actually turns out to be the real deal.
You see, Joanna wants Michael to locate a particular passenger (who’s not part of the regular commuting crowd) that she knows only as ‘Prynne,’ before the train arrives at its final stop. While this sounds easy enough, Joanna wants Michael to plant a tracking device on ‘Prynne,’ which will eventually get this person killed. She offers Michael $25,000 up front for the impromptu assignment and another $75,000 upon completion, enough to alleviate any economic stress of having just been fired from work — it’ll also save him from having to tell his wife that he’s lost his job. Although tempted by the ‘easy money,’ Michael tries to back out of the dangerous offer in order to avoid becoming mixed up in a potential murder. Joanna, on the other hand, isn’t going to take no for an answer, the femme fatale threatening to hurt Michael’s family if he doesn’t play her malicious ‘game.’ Now, caught in a criminal conspiracy, Michael must comply with Joanna’s orders and scour the train in search of clues and suspects, as his standard commute becomes a wild, highwire ride that’ll test both his brains and brawn.
Tasked with finding an unknown rider in a train full of ‘em, it’s this harebrained premise that’ll grab people’s attention, filmmaker Collet-Serra — who gave us 2016’s excellent, far superior The Shallows — doing his best to keep things moving at a breakneck speed. The movie opens with a winning montage that introduces viewers to Michael’s daily routine — you know, dealing with the trials and tribulations of work, married life and parenthood — these scenes hinting at Michael’s disdain towards the well-off/ wealthy — there’s even a great moment where Neeson flips off a douchey stockbroker named Vince (Shazad Latif).
Things start to get shaky around the midway mark, when Neeson begins to dart from carriage to carriage, beating people up as he struggles to solve a generic Agatha Christie-type case that, let’s be honest, isn’t be too difficult to crack, especially when looking at certain casting choices. Collet-Serra also uses iffy VFX throughout the close-quarters clashes, while cinematographer Paul Cameron, Collateral (2004), moves his camera in and out of the locomotive as the action ensues — the highpoint, a one-take, hand-to-hand scrap that was edited together in post — the screenplay, at this point, turning Neeson’s everyman character into a quasi superhero. Sadly, The Commuter comes to a screeching halt after an explosive set piece (that arrives about 20 minutes too early), leaving viewers with an uninteresting exposition dump to close out the picture, one that feels as though it were plucked from a boring late-night procedural show — yawn!
Performances are all basically phoned in, with Liam Neeson doing his usual ‘daddy porn’ shtick as Michael MacCauley, a generic pulp-movie badass with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. Given her short screen-time, the always-magnetic Vera Farmiga manages to leave a bit of a lasting impression as the seductive villainess Joanna, while her Conjuring co-star Patrick Wilson, is forgettable as Michael’s borderline suspicious cop buddy Murphy (who MacCauley stays in touch with via phone). Sam Neill, Jurassic Park (1993), is completely wasted as Captain David Hawthorne, Michael’s former supervisor at the New York Police Department, whereas Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth (2016), and Jonathan Banks, from television’s Breaking Bad (2009-12), add some much needed oomph to proceedings as spunky college gal Gwen and regular commuter Walt, respectively.
Look, at the end of the day, The Commuter isn’t nearly engrossing enough to stop one’s mind from wandering or picking out its various plot holes. Sure, Collet-Serra’s fourth team-up with Neeson is a swift, fast-paced actioneer, but I’m afraid to say, it’s their least effective collaboration to date. Let’s just hope that Neeson (who’s now 65-years old) pushes the breaks on his ‘action movie persona’ before he winds up in hospital or something.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie