The Commuter Review
|Writer(s)||Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi|
|Release Date||January 12, 2018|
Liam Neeson stars as late-career Liam Neeson in our annual Liam Neeson karate-chopping movie. And I’ve now typed Liam Neeson so many times that it’s just a meaningless jumble of letters – which, as it happens, is a bit like the script for The Commuter.
Already with the burns?
I’m being facetious. The Commuter is actually alright, especially in the disposable, itch-scratching way these things typically are.
What’s it about?
As always, Neeson plays a regular older guy with a comically normal-sounding name. Michael MacCauley, in this case. Mike’s a 60-year-old insurance salesman with two mortgages and a college-age son (Dean-Charles Chapman) whose education he can’t afford. None of his economic anxieties are helped when he’s suddenly laid-off – a fact he keeps from his wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
Mike commutes to and from work on the same train every day. Has done for the last ten years. None of which is surprising. The plot does seem concocted by someone who has spent a lot of time being rocked into a daydream by public transport. Mike is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who ropes him into a criminal conspiracy. For $25,000 up front and another $75,000 on completion, all Mike has to do is identify a particular passenger and plant a tracking device on their bag. Seems easy enough. But the catch is that once the device has been planted, that person will be killed.
Huh. That sounds pretty good.
Yeah, it’s not a bad idea. The moral conundrum at the core of it doesn’t really work, mind. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that this upstanding, decent citizen would condemn a person to death for $100,000. But that’s why you hire an actor like Liam Neeson, who can sell the character’s economic havoc and wounded macho pride with his usual unfussy, believable determination.
But as far as dramatic ingredients go, we’re covered. We’ve got a confined location. There are a limited number of characters, any of whom could be suspects. There’s a ticking-clock device. (The person Mike is looking for is due to leave the train at a particular station). We don’t really know the reasons why any of this is happening, or the potential consequences, but it quickly becomes clear that they won’t be pleasant – for Mike, his family, or the rest of the train.
How does The Commuter handle this premise?
Reasonably well, all things considered. The big advantage it has is that finding the individual he has been paid to find is the least of Mike’s problems. He also has to figure out who’s forcing him to do this, why, and eventually contrive a way out of it without endangering the other passengers and potentially his wife and kid. The film’s really lean and pacey, and for all its issues you couldn’t ever say it was boring.
Issues, you say?
Even on paper this plot is bonkers. But how it plays out is even wilder, and it eventually reaches a finale that is so comically contrived that it’s really difficult to buy into the good-hearted, Spartacus-style ending that the whole film works incredibly hard to set up. So that’s a shame. But despite all that narrative complexity, it’s still really easy to figure out the supposedly-shocking revelations about two acts earlier than Mike does. Which, again, is a shame.
But there’s some good stuff?
Oh, yeah, sure. The nuts-and-bolts of the various action sequences and investigatory beats are all well-oiled. There are some small-scale action set-pieces that are surprisingly well-choreographed, too. One in particular, a one-take hand-to-hand fight, doesn’t quite manage to surpass the legendary hammer scene from Oldboy, but certainly tries its best to. I always appreciate that kind of effort in my straightforward genre fare, especially when it’s bolstered by a cast that might charitably be described as deserving of much better material.
Hold on – Mike’s an insurance salesman, right?
Yeah, but he’s played by Liam Neeson, so of course he’s a badass ex-cop too.
What also helps The Commuter is that it’s a Jaume Collet-Serra film, who has directed Neeson in three previous actioners. (Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night.) His whole thing is making disposable genre films that aren’t particularly memorable but always seem to work better than they have any right to. (He also made The Shallows, which was a shark movie starring Blake Lively of all people, and even that was good.) It’s not surprising that he’d be a frequent collaborator with Neeson, who always does good work even in wacky B-movies.
Besides – the novelty of seeing Oskar Schindler karate chop motherfuckers still hasn’t worn off for me. It’s tempting to wish for him to do something serious and dramatic again, but he really enhances movies like this one. They’d still exist without him, but the obligatory exposition wouldn’t have any gravitas, and you wouldn’t get to enjoy pandering bits like when he gets up in the face of a Goldman Sachs broker played by Star Trek: Discovery’s Shazad Latif.
It’s a Liam Neeson movie released in January. You already know if that’s your thing or not. For what it’s worth, I liked it quite a bit, and if you’ve enjoyed any of these things before now, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.
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