Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Jaume Collet-Serra is best known - by those who are aware of him at all - for his inescapable work with Liam Neeson over the past decade (Non-Stop, Run All Night, Unknown), and yet I've seen basically every item in his filmography save for those. And from the angle I'm using, I enjoy him very much. House of Wax was a gleefully gory, surprisingly solid mid-2000's remake, Orphan was a fizzy and delightful B-picture, and The Shallows was a perfect summer movie that proves the killer shark genre still has some juice left in it. So I was excited to explore his newest film, now that I've really had the chance to get down and dirty with him.
Let's just say I'll gladly sign up for his next horror effort, but I'll need a LOT of convincing before I approach another one of these action projects.
In The Commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is an Irish ex-pat who keeps a crummy job at an insurance agency to support his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman), who figure into the story exactly as little as you might expect. One day, after getting fired from his job, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on the train, offering him $100,000 if he can find the person on the train who does not belong, who is currently going under the alias Prynne. He isn't told what will happen to this person once he finds them, but one can assume they're not receiving a giant novelty check.
Wondering how ol' Neeson's gonna punchify his way through this one? Well, you see, it turns out the man is an ex-cop, so he relies on his skills, his ex-partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), and his relationship with the local chief (Sam Neill) to find Prynne, evade capture by the increasingly suspicious train authorities, and fight his way through various goon-shaped obstacles as it turns out Vera is just one head of a massive hydra conspiracy that has eyes and ears everywhere. But once he finds his quarry, he will be faced with this moral quandary: should he save this person from harm or save his family, who at some point during this whole shebang have their lives vaguely threatened.
Look, this whole movie is basically just Liam Neeson Mad Libs; they pretty much expect you to be able to fill in the blanks as needed.
"I'm 60 years of age!" shouts Liam Neeson in an early scene, helpfully underscoring just how useless the script is going to be the entire time. It's almost quaint, the way the dialogue just plain fails to sound like anything a human being has said since the beginning of time. I'd perhaps even call it Agatha Christie-esque, if I was feeling at all charitable, which I am certainly not.
Because Liam Neeson needs as much information as possible to further the twists and turns of the mystery of who Prynne is, each and every suspect immediately spouts a wealth of detail and insight into their motivations when even slightly prodded. Even if they have up to this point found Neeson to be a frightening and erratic presence that they want to avoid at all costs, they spill the beans on their darkest secrets like they're characters in a Nancy Drew video game and he handed them the right item to unlock their clues.
Nobody here is an actual dimensional character, least of all this "conspiracy" that fuels the entire conflict. At no point do we get a sense of who they are or what they want, except in the sense that conspiracies are Bad. This vast city-wide crime ring is also completely forgotten by the time the plot tangles itself into such a tight knot the movie is forced to end so it doesn't strangle itself. But I shouldn't bother myself too hard about it, because they don't seem particularly competent anyway. The vague threats to his family that I mentioned earlier are exactly that: his family is mentioned in a phone call but never actually directly threatened. I guess Vera hoped the power of implication would override the fact that they have absolutely zero leverage over this guy, who literally never even remotely considers the possibility that he should stop being a hero to save his loved ones.
I mean, he's had his fair share of action movie families, so I guess it's easy to forget why you care about this particular one.
Jaume Collet-Serra as a visual artist does bring a little more pep and zazz to the proceedings than your average workaday Joe Blow, especially in an opening montage that zips through a week of commuting, showcasing the monotonous, yet subtly different patterns that a weekday warrior can fall into. But no matter how many times he Murder on the Orient Expresses his train by zooming through the entire length, or moves the frame through a tiny hole in a punched ticket, there's no avoiding the fact that this is a pretty run-of-the-mill experience through and through.
The Commuter never shakes that sense of fatigue, especially when it's running through the too-long list of options for Prynne. The characters aren't memorable enough to capture the attention (save for the obligatory asshole banker character who must appear in all movies starring a random scattering of people from all walks of life, who provides Liam Neeson the opportunity to make the most clunky defense of the American middle class that the world of cinema has ever seen), and there's just so many to get through that it just feels endless.
And when the third act finally kicks in, it makes such a bizarre hash out of police operating procedure and character motivations that it's almost like you slipped into an entirely different, substantially worse movie that goes on for even longer. At least the opening hour had a kind of manic energy thanks to Liam Neeson's natural gravitas, but that all drains directly into the dirt long before the credits roll.
The Commuter is a better January action choice than Proud Mary ever was, as you can potentially have a reasonably amount of fun by turning your brain off and taking the ride. But it would probably be more fun to just take an actual train trip somewhere. It would certainly be more stimulating.
TL;DR: The Commuter weaves a tangled web of plot that even Liam Neeson can't escape from.
Rating: 5/10Word Count: 1096