The Commuter is a goofy and formulaic thriller, but also an entertaining one thanks to Neeson's action star chops and Collet-Serra's sense of style.
Having collaborated for three films already, actor Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra reunite for their fourth and possibly silliest thriller yet with The Commuter. Collet-Serra made his name as a skilled schlockmeister with his House of Wax remake and horror/thriller Orphan in the 2000s, before he joined forces with Neeson (in the post-Taken stage of his acting career) for the 2011 mystery/thriller Unknown. The pair has since tried their hand at something a little more high-minded with the dramatic crime thriller Run All Night, but The Commuter has much more in common with their 2014 murder mystery Non-Stop. The Commuter is a goofy and formulaic thriller, but also an entertaining one thanks to Neeson's action star chops and Collet-Serra's sense of style.
Michael McCauley (Neeson) is a sixty year old insurance salesman as well as an ex-cop, who has spent the last ten years commuting to work by train. When Michael is fired from his job one day for no particularly good reason, he is left trying to figure out how he and his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) will be able to make ends meet, what with their son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) about to start college. On his ride home that day, Michael is approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who makes him an offer: he will be paid $100,00 if he can figure out which of the passengers on the train is carrying something precious in their bag.
Michael dismisses the encounter as a strange joke, but soon discovers that Joanna is completely serious, and that there will be terrible consequences if he doesn't make good on their "deal". As Michael races against the clock to find the mystery passenger before they get off the train, he comes to realize that not only his own life, but the lives of every passenger onboard, and even his own family, is at risk if he fails.
The Commuter is very similar to Non-Stop from a script perspective - which only makes sense, as Non-Stop cowriter Ryan Engle also co-penned this film, based on an earlier screenplay written by relative unknowns Philip de Blasi and Byron Willinger. While the film's Agatha Christie inspired premise lends itself to a cracking mystery, The Commuter doesn't do anything particularly inventive or unique with the formula. Most of the red herrings and plot twists that The Commuter throws out are easy to spot ahead of time, and the actual solution to the larger conflict is clearly telegraphed early on in the narrative. Fortunately, The Commuter is less concerned with crafting a mind-blowing puzzle for viewers to solve, and more focused on delivering the sort of relentless thrill ride that audiences have come to expect whenever Neeson plays the world's greatest problem-solving dad.
Michael McCauley is at first presented as more of a regular person than the characters Neeson has played in his previous collaborations with Collet-Serra. In function, however, Michael isn't all that different from Neeson's other action/thriller protagonists, and the actor delivers most of his lines with the same gruff voiced intensity that he's fine-tuned since he first demonstrated his "particular set of skills". Collet-Serra and his production team take advantage of the film's enclosed setting to stage The Commuter's close quarter fight scenes in a way that makes it believable enough (for the film's purposes) that Neeson's cop turned insurance agent wouldn't be completely overwhelmed by his opponents. The movie also incorporates some stylistic flourishes (sped up motion, sequence shots seemingly created in post-production) in these scenes, to further spice things up.
As he has done in his previous collaborations with Neeson, Collet-Serra fills out The Commuter's supporting cast with A-list talent. In addition to Farmiga (who previously worked with Collet-Serra on Orphan) and her Conjuring movies costar Patrick Wilson, the movie further benefits from having seasoned character actors like McGovern filling out its ensemble, as well as Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill in smaller roles. Most of the film's characters - especially the train passengers played by lesser known actors - are the sort of two-dimensional stock types that one expects to find in this sort of pulpy fare. The Commuter is above all else the Liam Neeson show, and it wisely never loses sight of that throughout its runtime.
Collet-Serra is known for infusing his B-grade movies with slick production values, and that remains the case with The Commuter. The director typically makes good use of the environments in his films, be it the inescapable inside of the airplane from Non-Stop or the beautiful and isolated beach in The Shallows. He likewise uses the cramped and dingy interiors of a commuter train to positive effect here, when it comes to generating suspense and tension. Working with cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral, Dead Man Down), Collet-Serra stylishly maps out the internal layout of the film's central set piece and keeps things visually engaging, in spite of the unchanging foreground scenery. The downside is, The Commuter is more interested in getting to the next scene of Neeson punching someone than it is fleshing out its characters or exploring the political overtones of its narrative.
The Commuter is neither Neeson nor Collet-Serra's best thriller yet, but it's a perfectly serviceable genre movie that delivers everything audiences expect from Neeson's action films nowadays - to a fault. It's not a film that demands to be seen in a theater, and it falls well short of breaking the mold that Neeson and Collet-Serra have established for their movies together by now. At the same time, The Commuter is enjoyably ridiculous and offers enough entertainment to help beat away the doldrums of January. Here's to hoping Neeson's and Collet-Serra's "Taken On A Boat", or whatever moving vehicle their next thriller takes place on, is equally fun.
The Commuter is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 104 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.
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- The Commuter (2018) release date: Jan 12, 2018