A few years back, at the ripe age of 56 years young, Liam Neeson turned the tide of his illustrious career and became a household name for a second time — as an action star! It wasn’t as if he wasn’t unfamiliar with action, having starred in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins, but up to this point, the majority of his films had been more romantic fare and dense drama. Then Neeson claimed his “particular set of skills” and started kicking villainous butt across the silver screen. Some of them were high-octane thrillers that kept us glued to our seats, and others… not so much. At 65, you wouldn’t think he’d be continuing to pound the grindstone like he has, but he must know a good thing when he sees one, as Neeson is once again back in reluctant hero mode in The Commuter. How does this action-thriller stack up against to the rest? Let’s find out.
Neeson plays Michael McCauley, a loving husband and father who goes to work everyday as a life insurance broker. Director Juame Collet-Serra begins the film with a sequence showcasing Michael running through his morning routine, going through the motions on repeat with very little change over the course of what could be weeks or months. The whole situation creates a subtle attachment to Michael, as who can’t relate to this type of mundane situation? When we finally get to his place of work, we’re finally able to settle into one day, signifying that the rest of this particular day is going to be anything but typical. After putting in almost a full day of work, Michael is unceremoniously fired and his phone is stolen just as the doors to the commuter train home close in front of him.
Enter Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a talkative psychologist who asks Michael a very intriguing question: if you were offered $100,000 to do one small thing (in this case, locate someone on the train who doesn’t belong and put a GPS tracker on their bag), would you do it? With Michael’s current money situation (being laid off, having to pay his son’s college tuition), he’s quite intrigued, but his moral center — his gut, if you will — fights the chance for easy money. Unsure if the question was hypothetical, he heads to the bathroom to find the $25,000 “deposit” left for him as acceptance of the proposal. He figures he can just run with the cash and be done with it, but Joanna has other plans — if Michael doesn’t find the person she’s looking for by the time they arrive at their stop, his family will be killed.
It’s a good thing Michael is also an ex-detective!
Like Neeson’s Non-Stop (which took place mostly on a plane), the majority of The Commuter takes place on this one train, so Collet-Serra has to find unique ways to keep Michael’s search from becoming too repetitive. He does a decent job of this by providing us with some colorful suspects, as well as some regulars that Michael can talk to while he makes an effort to find the person he’s looking for. Though he’s able to identify several suspects right away, and he’s got a general sense for this type of work, it becomes clear pretty quickly why Michael is no longer a detective — he’s not very subtle about anything. He’s a normal person who tends not to observe the smaller details all that well, and can’t separate his own fear of losing his family with the cold calculations needed to complete his task without suspicion.
What this lack of discretion sets up, though, keeps Collet-Serra from truly captivating us with the intrigue needed for a thriller like this. Every time Michael talks to a new suspect, or finds a new clue as to who the target may be, the lead-up and follow through to those moments don’t seem to have enough bite to them. Neeson does a good job of reacting to each new character and misdirection, and keeps his emotions a mixed bag of fear, anger, confusion, and adrenaline, but Collet-Serra can’t seem to find a balance among all of the twists and turns the film takes to keep us guessing.
But he does keep us guessing, leading to one reveal that works really well, and another that any hardcore movie lover can see coming like a freight train. It’s fine, though, as there are bound to be some clichés throughout a movie like this, and is forgivable due to the caliber of acting on display. What isn’t forgivable are some of the horrendous special effects sprinkled throughout that create a very unbelievable environment. In movies like Taken and Unknown, there’s at least a semblance of reality that keep the films from feeling too far-fetched. Unfortunately, there are so many things in The Commuter that are so over-exaggerated and enhanced, that it rips you right out of the film, making you wonder how a big-budget thriller like this could be so careless.
If you like Neeson, and you like his previous action-thrillers, you’re most likely going to like The Commuter. It gives off just enough noise, emotion and intrigue to whet your whistle until the next action thriller comes along to provide your adrenaline fix. If you don’t care for Neeson, or find his films a little too unbelievable, you’ll probably want to pass on this one, since you’ll be bored by the poorly rendered effects and some action sequences that are simply a poor copy of what’s come before. (As an example, Collet-Serra attempts to do a fight sequence in one shot, but unlike the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde — which is probably the most brutal, exciting and realistic fight sequence ever filmed — the one in The Commuter feels utterly fake and generic in comparison.)
All-in-all, The Commuter has its highlights and it has its lowlights. It’s not the best thing Neeson has done, but it’s not his worst. It’s a disposable film that might find traction on video, but will most likely be forgotten by year’s end, as we all move onto Neeson’s next trip through a slew of bad guys out to hurt someone he loves.
My Grade: B
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Next week, new movies include 12 Strong, Den of Thieves and Forever My Girl. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.