The Commuter ** / *****
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Michael MacCauley), Vera Farmiga (Joanna), Patrick Wilson (Alex Murphy), Jonathan Banks (Walt), Sam Neill (Captain Hawthorne), Elizabeth McGovern (Karen MacCauley), Killian Scott (Dylan), Shazad Latif (Vince), Andy Nyman (Tony), Clara Lago (Eva), Roland Møller (Jackson), Florence Pugh (Gwen), Dean-Charles Chapman (Danny MacCauley), Ella-Rae Smith (Sofia).
The Commuter is the latest entry in the Liam Neeson punches people genre – a genre that hasn’t really produced any good movies, but have basically been decent time wasters. He is teamed up with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the fourth time, but although I know I have seen the previous three – Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night – I also couldn’t give you a detailed breakdown of anything that happens in any of them (I don’t even remember the premise of Unknown if I’m being completely honest). So, walking into The Commuter, I really didn’t expect all that much – I was basically going because I commute every day on the train myself, so I kind of wanted to see how they made by every day life into an action movie. The film is a somewhat entertaining time waster for the first 70-80 minutes or so, but really does fly off the rails (literally) in the last act. It’s also got a somewhat downbeat, depressing tone to it, which it makes it harder for it to operate as a guilty pleasure than any movie involving Liam Neeson punching people on a train should be.
In the film, Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a one-time cop, who gave that up to sell insurance – presumably because it was a safer and more lucrative job that being a cop was after his savings were wiped out in the 2008 Financial Crisis. Things finally seem to be close to be back on track again – his son is about to go to college, his marriage is basically okay, and while they aren’t rich, they are getting by. And then, one day, he gets fired – and his severance package isn’t even a payout, but rather an insurance policy (which, to an insurance company, is probably cheaper to get). He doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for anything, he doesn’t know how he’s going to tell his wife he’s out of a job – and someone just stole his cell phone. He’s trying to piece this altogether as he gets on his regular commuter train, from New York to somewhere outside the city – when an attractive woman (Vera Farmiga) sits down across from him. She tells him that if he can find someone on this train – someone who doesn’t belong – and places a tracking chip on their bag, he will get $100K. To prove she’s serious, she tells him to go to the bathroom, and find $25K hidden there. He does, and by doing so, essentially agrees to the terms of the deal. All he knows is that the person goes by the name of Prynne, and is getting off at Cold Springs – the last stop on the train.
The films opening scenes are filled with information we are sure will be relevant later – a news story about a city planner who recently killed himself, a train car with malfunctioning A/C, recognizable actors (Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill) in apparently meaningless roles, etc. And, of course, those all do become relevant along the commute – as Michael is able to piece together more and more of the story, and realizes just how in over his head he has gotten.
The film starts with an intriguing premise – and its best scene is the one between Neeson and Farmiga. It’s basically a premise like out of Richard Matheson’s The Box – do something, and you’ll get money, and someone you don’t know will get hurt. But the film really isn’t interested in that moral question – rather it just wants to get Neeson unravelling the mystery, and punching people. Like Non-Stop, it places him in an enclosed space – and sets him up to be the fall guy should something go wrong.
I enjoyed much of the movie, on its very limited level. Neeson is good at this type of film – he should be, he’s done enough of them – and its kind of fun to see him unravel the mystery, and get an applause moment by giving someone who works at Goldman Sachs the finger (the film knows it audience is basically working class white people, who whether they Trump or Sanders, hates Goldman Sachs). The film though feels the need to go from implausible and fun, to downright ridiculous in its last act – somehow even more so AFTER Neeson decouples a car from the train.
These movies are designed to be cheap, disposable counter programming in the cold winter months – something for adults to go to once they’ve seen the Oscar contenders, or for those who don’t give a crap about those Oscar contenders. You probably already know if you’ll like the movie or not, based on your feelings on the Liam Neeson punches people genre. There are no surprises here.