End of the line.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 2:08 pm on Jan 14, 2018
WATCH THIS IF:
- You’re desperate for your January Liam Neeson action fix.
NOTE: Mild spoilers for The Commuter follow, if that matters.
You never really know what to expect with a Liam Neeson action movie. Sometimes, they’re taut and emotional experiences like The Grey. Other times, they’re barely-coherent disasters like Taken 3. When Neeson works with director Jaume Collet-Serra, however, things tend to work out; they have collaborated on no less than three thrillers recently – Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, all of which hit their mark pretty well. Now, their fourth collaborative effort has arrived in the form of The Commuter, and unfortunately, it’s the worst of the bunch.
Cop-turned-insurance-salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) commutes into New York City every day. After ten years of this routine, he gets laid off just as his family desperately needs some steady income. On his ride home, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him with a strange offer: find someone on his train and mark their bag with a GPS tracker in exchange for $100,000. Michael soon finds that his family and friends are in danger because of this, and he frantically searches for this unknown passenger before it’s too late.
Put simply, The Commuter is little more than Non-Stop on a train, and the two films share far too many narrative beats. There’s a mysterious, omnipotent instigator communicating via cell phone. There’s a background character we see only fleetingly who ends up integral to the mystery. There’s shocking and sudden passenger death meant to send a message. There’s a climactic scene of catastrophe aboard the transportation. We’ve seen it all before, and frankly, Non-Stop did it all better.What makes me say that? For one, the details of the plot are pretty much nonexistent until the very end. Farmiga’s insane omniscience is never explained. The target passenger’s purpose gets haphazardly thrown into an info-dump at the end. Neeson finds ways to investigate and rule out suspects seemingly out of thin air. The film manufactures all sorts of contrivances to ensure that the looming derailment comes to pass in spectacular fashion. It all just sort of happens, and it’s up to you to go along with it.
In keeping with that idea, Neeson’s Michael is either completely badass or laughably unrealistic. Despite being 60 and out of the cop game for over a decade, he goes toe-to-toe with trained adversaries half his age, endures multiple stab wounds, and still comes out on top somehow. He causes plenty of dangerous havoc, yet in true New York fashion, no one cares enough to do anything about it beyond calling in an unsuccessful search party. His inevitable transition from hapless bystander to impossible ass-kicker takes longer than usual, but Michael is played as such a meek fellow that it’s even less believable this time. Just go with it, I guess.
One thing I can’t go with, though, are the effects; they’re distractingly bad, and they pull you out of the experience more often than they should. Fast-moving backgrounds blend very poorly with train interiors. A “one-take” fight halfway through can’t conceal the unconvincing CGI barely holding the setpiece together. Neeson’s character climbs and jumps around in ways that you know damn well he shouldn’t be able to. The train itself takes a lot of obviously-fake abuse. It all just looks low-rent.
Speaking of the train, in a fun aside for me, the film is set on a Hudson Line Metro-North train, which I travel on pretty frequently. The movie actually gets many details about these trains and this line right, though frequent riders are sure to spot some discrepancies; the movie train stops at subway stations, for example, while actual Metro-North trains don’t, and good luck finding a train that goes straight to Garrison from Tarrytown.Anyway, most of the cast does a reasonable job with what little the script gives them. Plot and character development really only bookend the film, with the rest of the runtime dedicated to Neeson investigating, interrogating, fighting, and looking stressed. There are a few tacked-on, in-your-face stabs at Wall Street greed – “Goldman Sachs, on behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!” is an actual line Neeson says – but the idea never gets any serious development. It’s all very straightforward, undemanding fare; there’s no room for thematic development on this train.
It’s not all bad, though! The highlight here is the opening sequence, which depicts multiple intercut examples of Michael and his family throughout their morning routine. It cleverly highlights Michael’s dynamic with his wife and son across time, and it emphasizes the repetitive nature of his commuting lifestyle, something that will undoubtably resonate with viewers who live similar lives. A great piece of music by Roque Baños seals the mood effectively, laying the foundation for a creative and emotional thrill ride that, sadly, the movie never lives up to.
My usual remark about these kinds of action films is that they don’t need to be thought-provoking or overly heartfelt. They do, however need to be entertaining and make some degree of sense, and we only get flashes of that here. The Commuter opens with a lot of promise, but it never capitalizes on those early moments of tension. There’s nothing blatantly terrible about it, and it’s effortless viewing for the most part, but it’s still just a run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson romp, and that should tell you everything you need to know.
P.S. I’m not kidding when I say you can get everything this movie offers elsewhere. You want a tense, exciting, commuter-train-based thriller? Go watch Source Code. You want Liam Neeson getting in trouble onboard claustrophobic transportation? Go watch Non-Stop. You’ve got lots of options that aren’t The Commuter, and you don’t even have to leave your house to see them.