First it was his daughter, then terrorists on planes, and now trains – can we just let Liam Neeson have one peaceful day all to himself?
Director – Jaume Collet-Sera
Screenplay – Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi & Ryan Engle
Producer – Andrew Rona & Alex Heineman
Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language
For the past ten years, retired police officer turned life insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) has gone through the same routine every day without fail. Every morning, McCauley hops aboard a train to work from Tarrytown to Grand Central, then it’s back aboard to home. Wash, rinse and repeat. Hopefully, you don’t have to whip out your particular set of skills and punch someone’s teeth out..
Whelp – looks like I spoke too soon.
On this particular day, McCauley is approached by an enigmatic woman who goes by the name Joanna (Vera Farmiga). What starts out as harmless chit chat soon turns into a hypothetical proposal: For $100,000, would he be willing to identify an unknown passenger carrying a secret? After accepting what he believes is just a harmless hypothetical, he soon realizes the deal is far more dangerous than he bargained for, and when it’s discovered that his own family is in danger, he’ll be racing against time to uncover the mystery passenger before it’s too late.
They just fucked with the wrong Mick.
After teaming up on Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra are back together again for another action-thriller, this time involving trains instead of planes.
Look for them to soon complete the Axis of John Hughes by having the next one take place in a car.
Despite the Taken trilogy being a whole lot of who really cares, Neeson’s best work in the action genre, aside from Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, has been with Collet-Serra, who’s been building up a pretty fine filmography of his own. Their collaborations may not be genre landmarks, but between Neeson’s acting chops and Collet-Serra’s gift for style and tension building they’ve made some entertaining features together, at least with Non-Stop and Run All Night (Unknown has an intriguing premise, but unfortunately unravels as the movie progresses).
So, January be damned, does this dynamic duo have it in them to deliver another action-packed punch once again?
The Good: The Commuter starts out on a high stylistic note, with Collet-Serra and editor Nicolas de Toth seamlessly blending together a sequence of scenes that capture McCauley’s daily routine over an extended period of time. It’s a great montage that perfectly provides viewers with a sense of tedium that is McCauley’s daily grind over the course of a decade.
From there, Collet-Serra tightens the scope, limiting most, if not all, of the action to just the train. With Non-Stop having taken place almost entirely onboard a commercial airline, Collet-Serra has experience with getting the most out of tight, near-claustrophobic settings, and here he once again finds creative ways to stage intense action sequences and maneuver camera movements within the film’s limited surroundings (in particular, there’s a nifty little effects sequence where the shot goes through the hole punches in passengers’ tickets).
As for Liam Neeson, no one’s gonna be giving this performance a “For your consideration” push next January, but Neeson still gives his all, which is far more than what we’d get if this was say Bruce Willis yawning his way to a paycheck for 90 minutes. Neeson may have a commanding stature at 6’4″, but he’s also 65 (in total fairness to him, I hope to look 1/4 of how good he looks by my 33rd birthday this July), so it is refreshing to see him playing a character his age, even if that comes at the cost of having to hear him state, “I’m 60 years old!!” over and over again as if we’re gonna forget within the next five minutes. McCauley may still be able to dish out the punches, but he’s no spring chicken and he takes just as many hits to the face as he gives out.
The Bad: While Collet-Serra has his filmmaking bag of tricks on full display for at least the first half, The Commuter begins to lose momentum around the start of the second half, just when it should be dialing up the tension. Near the third-act, by the time the train goes off the rails and grinds to a screeching halt, the film itself also – well… you get the picture. This is actually quite surprising coming from Collet-Serra, who has a great knack for efficient film pacing. Say what you want about Non-Stop turning full-tilt dumb in its third-act, it still didn’t lose any steam.
Most of the film’s issues lie in the script, which was written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. The premise is certainly intriguing, and it’s set up quite well, but instead of dispersing mystery plot points throughout the film up until the climactic reveal, the writing trio gives away too much in the first-act, then wait ’til the very end to explain everything in one giant exposition dump. While Collet-Serra and his writers are aiming for a Hitchcockian tale of the blue collar everyman who is pushed into an intense moral dilemma, the film shows its sinister hand far too early, especially when McCauley learns that his family has been taken hostage. The reveal completely eliminates the protagonist’s ethical conflict, which should’ve been the driving force of this film, and thus eliminates much of the suspense regarding his decisions.
It also doesn’t help that there’s really not much, if anything, to McCauley’s wife (an unfortunate waste of Elizabeth McGovern) and son that merits our concern for their survival.
Given the caliber of the cast and director, it’s a shame this couldn’t be better than it is ’cause there are individual segments that hint at what could’ve been a great film. The diverse cast certainly do what they can with the stock character types they’re playing (the pierced punk girl, the suspicious looking one, the obnoxious talker, the arrogant Wall Street broker, etc.), but they’re either saddled with weak, half-assed blue collar commentary or problematic scenarios (Vera Farmiga does fine work here, but the film takes “earth to the moon” leaps in logic with how her off-screen villain is aware of every move Michael makes without being on the train).
As for the big reveal, I’ll play nice and won’t spoil anything. However, if you know your typecasting trends, you’ll be able to spot the answers from a mile away.
The Ugly: I guess I can’t necessarily fault the writers for having the balls to rip off the most impactful moment from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Spartacus. I once again won’t spoil the who, what, where, how and why with this film, but you’ll know it when you see it ’cause it’ll either appear that obvious, or you’ll hear Kubrick himself spinning in his grave when it happens. The difference is the immortalized “I am Spartacus!” scene in Kubrick’s film is one of the most inspiring, cheer-eliciting moments in film. The only thing The Commuter’s attempt at a crowd-pleaser will elicit is eye rolls.
But at least my girlfriend got excited in that moment, so you at least won her over… Congrats. She’s not the one grading this, however.
Consensus: Though it starts out strong, thanks to the always committed Liam Neeson and some stylistic flair from director Jaume Collet-Serra, The Commuter ultimately runs off the rails by way of a weak script and a tension-deflating, underwhelming third-act. Granted, we could do worse for January, but with Collet-Serra having accustomed us to expect better from him, this ends up being a disappointment.
Silver Screen Fanatic’s Verdict: I give The Commuter a C (★★½).