Starring: Liam Neeson, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Running Time: 105 mins
Synopsis: Former cop turned insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) has ridden the same train to and from work for 10 years, getting to know the regulars of this daily commute. On one journey he is contacted by a mysterious stranger (Farmiga) who offers him a challenge. Find a hidden passenger and be rewarded a ton of cash. Falling into this game he soon realises that he is involved in something bigger, a conspiracy that could end up risking the lives of all onboard.
Towards the end of Liam Neeson’s latest geriatric action film we witness the man himself leap from a speeding train, smashing onto the front of another whilst stray carriages fly at him in the air. Oh and may I add his character Micheal is meant to be an insurance salesman. If that sort of silliness sounds right up your alley than you can do worse than check out the terrifically boring sounding The Commuter. A film that knows exactly what its audience wants and never presumes to be anything other than what it is. A fact that, if you’re willing, will lead to a great night at the movies.
Before all these feats of death-defying insanity we start off quiet with a nicely edited sequence introducing us to the drudging repetition in the daily life of Michael. A man of tightly wound routine, affectionate to his wife and son (I would name the actors involved but the films pays them little mind so why should you) and well liked by his fellow commuters. As with most of these B-movie thrillers, story stakes are set out broadly and future plot machinations are woefully obvious. His lack of funds frequently mentioned so we know a later offer of financial reward will put the plot in its necessary place. A background as a New York cop driven home (of course Neeson couldn’t be playing any mere average Joe) from his regular meet-ups with old partners. In this case Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill as ex-partner and new Chief of Police respectively. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that casting notable named actors in these supposedly brief roles is all a red herring for later “major” plot twists down the line. Whilst it’s always great to see those two they are very much playing in their usual wheelhouse here. Now I can usually excuse a thriller for setting up beats likely to pay off down the line, it is the genre that most needs a fair degree of foreshadowing, but the mechanisms should not be this obvious to see.
Things tighten up in the films strongest section, after being fired from his job Micheal heads home as usual only to be confronted by a mysterious stranger (Farmiga-fierce if a little phoned in as in she literally speaks to Neeson on the phone for 90% of her role) who offers one simple choice. Identify a passenger on the train who doesn’t belong and be rewarded with $100,000. Shouldn’t be hard, he rides it every day and knows almost all by name or face. Of course being a Liam Neeson vehicle things escalate dramatically. Re-teaming with French director Collet-Serra after similar endeavours in Non-Stop and Unknown, the duo clearly have a short hand to the way they work. Neeson delivering virtually the same performance as he did in those films and Collet-Serra mounting solid if unspectacular set pieces. Unlike those two convoluted pictures The Commuter is nicely straightforward (well at least in this middle section), coming off as an almost Hitchcockian mystery tale. Neeson in a confined space using his wits to breakdown numerous suspects, like a sort of Hercule Poirot who kicks arse.
Collet-Serra makes surprisingly effective use of space, subtly enlarging his one set (we very rarely leave the confines of the train) to allow the claustrophobia to remain at the peripheral, whilst giving ample room for some bruising fight scenes. Collet-Serra coming up with an occasional inventiveness to keep the momentum going. Sadly the mind games and mental deductions give way to the usual fisticuffs Neeson fans expect. He holds himself admirably as always, with only one really sticking in the memory. A one shot punch-up involving that most unlikely of weapons, a guitar. Soon enough things take a turn for the bombastic and by this point the film has already reached peak craziness surrounding Government conspiracies and police corruption that you sort of just go with it. The final act is utter nonsense and marred by some very iffy CGI (to be honest the basic train travelling is greenscreened within an inch of its life) with the emotional pay off not quite at the level all involved seem to think.
As always though Neeson gives a gruff watchable performance, selling that brave protective nature that has made these films so successful. The surrounding cast are all decent, familiar TV faces interspersed with reliable old hands such as Jonathan Banks being the usual miserly old man that he can so warmly convey with consummate ease. Production values are decent if held back by the limitations of the smaller budget. But at the end of the day nobody is coming to these films with grand ideas of award-worthy acting, nuanced writing and unexpected surprises. As it is The Commuter is just an energetic, often funny slice of Friday night entertainment. Complete and utter nonsense it may be but a it is a solidly crafted antidote to the heavy Oscar nominated dramas that dominate this time of year.
Verdict: The Commuter quite quickly goes off the rails, literally, but an always watchable Liam Neeson, some fun mystery play and a lively rhythm keep the blood flowing. Utterly stupid but almost lovably so.