February 2023

The Commuter (2018)

DIRECTOR: Jaume Collet-Serra

CAST: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern


Another year, another Liam Neeson action flick. Once a “serious thespian”, Neeson has recently reinvented himself as starring in as many disposable thrillers as Steven Seagal. This time, the big guy reunites with Jaume Collet-Serra, who attempts a variation on their previous project, Non-Stop, a wannabe Hitchcockian thriller set within the confines of an airplane and serving up paranoia with a planeload of suspects and red herrings. This time, in what passes for variety on Neeson’s filmography these days, it’s a train. If you enjoyed Non-Stop, you may also find The Commuter intriguing, but while Non-Stop was able to distract from its plot holes and implausibilities “in the moment”, the convoluted mess going on in The Commuter isn’t able to achieve the same effect, at least not to the same extent. This is the kind of movie that defines “flash in the pan”: compulsive viewing in the moment, and immediately disposable.

After an unnecessarily convoluted and time-jumping opening illustrating the monotony of the titular “commuter”, ex-cop and insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), we’re dumped into Michael’s No Good, Very Bad Day. First he’s summarily dumped from his job, which isn’t a welcome development for a sixty-year-old man with two mortgages and a son (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones’ Tommen) headed for college. Then after a pit stop at a bar where he hangs out for a hot minute with two cop ex-colleagues (Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill), for no real reason other than as a convenient way to introduce these characters for when they eventually pop back up later and to dump a little backstory exposition, Michael boards the train for his routine commute. But this time, he is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who ensnares him in a Hitchcockian scheme: if Michael can figure out who on the train doesn’t belong and attach a tracking device to their bag, there’s $100,000 hidden in a restroom stall for him. Michael’s instinct is to take the money and run, but the omniscient conspirators have people in place to keep him onboard and threaten his family to ensure his cooperation. For a while, Michael does his best to carry out his mission, but besides looking for an unfamiliar face and a bag, he doesn’t have much to go on, and he gets less willing to cooperate when he realizes he might be helping silence a witness to a murder.

A better version of this kind of Hitchcockian thriller can pass the “in the moment” test of sufficiently intriguing and gripping the audience enough that plot holes and implausibilities aren’t dwelled on (at least not until the movie is over). Even Non-Stop, while not a great version of this sort of movie, accomplished this more consistently than The Commuter. It’s too easy to see the tropes ticking themselves off and the lack of intelligence in the script. As in Non-Stop, there’s a trainload of suspects, including a snooty stockbroker (Shazad Latif), a tight-lipped stranger (Roland Moller), and others. As always in these kinds of movies, the mostly unseen villains are all-knowing and all-powerful and can snap their fingers and do everything from making an example of a hapless bystander by shoving him into traffic, to derailing the train. The latter, tacked on to add an “exciting” ending by suddenly turning The Commuter into a runaway train movie, is hindered by bad CGI and some unlikely stunts involving the hero that induce unintentional snickering. The “surprise villain” is unsurprising, and some dangling plot strands feel a little unresolved.

Liam Neeson does his “Liam Neeson Action Hero” thing, meaning he maintains an air of dour seriousness amid the silliness surrounding him and takes part in a few tussles, although Michael MacCauley lacks the ass-whooping prowess of Taken‘s Bryan Mills (the original Taken was the best of these movies, with everything else, including its own sequels, being lesser variations). Whether Neeson’s aging or the fight choreography is to blame, the fight scenes here are disappointingly underwhelming and sometimes even unconvincing. Apart from Neeson, no one else gets much screentime. Vera Farmiga, apart from her opening bit, spends most of her role as a voice over the phone. Patrick Wilson pops up randomly early on and then doesn’t return for a while (though savvy viewers will suspect that when such a seemingly bit part is cast with a recognizable actor, said actor is going to get more to do later). Elizabeth McGovern and Sam Neill have walk-on roles, and Jonathan Banks’ bit is so thankless and throwaway that it makes me wonder if he’s hard up for work now that Breaking Bad is concluded.

How much you enjoy The Commuter might depend on two things: how undemanding you are about action thrillers, and how much of an appetite you have for Liam Neeson action flicks, which by this point are practically a genre unto themselves. For the viewer who does not fit into either category, it’s moderately diverting in the moment but doesn’t achieve enough escape velocity to successfully deflect from its own mounting preposterousness.

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