Despite frequent assurances from Liam Neeson that he’s looking to give up action movies, they sure do keep coming. Unexpectedly thrust into the role of action hero after the success of Taken (2008), Neeson has become defining action star of the decade. The Commuter sees him reunite with Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014) director Jaume Collet-Serra, completing an unofficial trilogy of implausible action thrillers. And while this one’s unlikely to linger long in the memory, as disposable popcorn movies go it’s decent.
It helps that Collet-Serra has tongue very firmly planted in cheek throughout. The plot isn’t too dissimilar to Non-Stop (just swap a plane for a train), with Michael McCauley (Neeson), a former cop turned insurance salesman, finding his daily commute thrown into chaos when he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She offers Michael a hypothetical question: could he locate one person on their busy train that “doesn’t belong”, for a big bag of cash? Unsurprisingly, the question doesn’t stay hypothetical for long, and when it transpires that Joanna has leverage against him, Michael must use his wiles to whittle out the target. But what’s so important about this person, and what exactly happens when he finds him or her?
The film’s opening sequence is a cleverly constructed look at Michael’s morning routine. We see him wake up, have breakfast with his family, drive to the station, and ride a train to work, but clever editing shows us a multitude of journeys all at once; the weather flipping between rain and shine, the mood changing depending on whether he’s having an argument with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) or whether they’re in a happier mood. It’s designed to visualise the drudgery of commuter life and it’s something many of us can relate to.
It’s a more inventive sequence than most of what follows, though. After a little scene-setting with Michael’s life, the action moves aboard a train and stays there. The fun of the film comes primarily from the claustrophobic setting, together with the tension of watching Michael try to suss out who he’s looking for. And naturally there are plenty of red herrings along the way. The support cast is surprisingly deep and varied, too: from regular commuting buddy Walt (Jonathan Banks, his character’s name perhaps a nod to Breaking Bad); an obnoxious city banker; a punky Florence Pugh; and a shifty looking young nurse, amongst others. Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill also appear as old police acquaintances.
The script makes a point of stressing that Neeson’s character is 60-years-old, to the point where one suspects Neeson pushed for the emphasis to temper expectations of this career path continuing much longer. And for the most part, there’s nothing in the action stakes that couldn’t be performed by a man of Neeson’s vintage. The set-pieces are mostly rather small in scale, but all the more effective for it. A trip outside and under the train has excellent suspense, while a close-quarters punch-up between Michael and a fellow passenger is enjoyably bruising. That Michael utilises a handily placed electric guitar as a weapon (wielding it with all the reverence of a Samurai holding his katana) further demonstrates that The Commuter isn’t to be taken very seriously.
At a certain point, inevitably, the action is elevated beyond plausibility, and the big climax is pulse-pounding and genuinely spectacular. Interestingly, however, there’s another act that follows. It’s not unwelcome to end the film on a quieter note, as the action becomes more personal and the story’s resolution takes precedence, but the aforementioned crescendo of chaos is so effective and exciting that the film’s unexpected continuation does give the real ending something of a hollow feel.
The Commuter is wildly implausible from a story perspective, but it does hang together in its own way. Neeson is as charming and watchable as ever (allowed to keep his natural accent), and the classy support cast and breathless action add a real sheen to proceedings. The film’s sense of humour, being very silly and knowing, makes it more likeable than both of Neeson and Collet-Serra’s previous collaborations. Liam Neeson action thrillers have become something of their own sub-genre since ’08, and The Commuter is one of the more unashamedly enjoyable ones. If Neeson is definitely going to step away from punching bad guys now, The Commuter is a fitting final journey.
Cast & Crew
director: Jaume Collet-Serra.
writers: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi & Ryan Engle (story by Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi).
starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern & Sam Neill.