If you watched a trailer, looked at a poster, read a description, or have any experience at all with Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson’s previous team ups, Non-Stop, Unknown, and Run All Night, their latest tag team, The Commuter, delivers precisely the movie it promises. It’s like a dumbed-down, idiot Strangers on a Train. There’s mystery, one-shot fight scenes, Liam Neeson kicking ass, and it’s as pointless and forgettable as it is goofily entertaining.
Ex-cop turned life insurance shill, Michael MacCauley (Neeson), rides the same commuter train into New York City every morning, just like he has for the previous ten years. On this particular day he’s 1) laid off by a generic corporate stooge; 2) has drinks with his former cop partner (Patrick Wilson) and sees his former cop boss (Sam Neill); and 3) meets a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) on the train back home, who offers him $100K to do something one thing, find the person on the train who doesn’t belong.
Simple, easy for a former cop, and it will solve all his money woes—of course his idyllic life is beset by money woes. This kicks off an escalating series of events and mysteries to untangle that ultimately hits ludicrous high notes and reminds us that we should never, ever talk to strangers, especially on a train.
Collet-Serra sets the stage in what’s a legitimately fantastic opening montage. In a spiraling sequence of quick edits and match cuts, we see Michael start his day, his every day. The one-day-is-the-same-as-the-next staging drives home the Groundhog’s Day nature of a regular morning commute—as someone who has a regular routine and commute, and can tell exactly where he is along the path by what’s on the radio at any given moment, this adds an authentic touch. Over the years, he’s made friends and acquaintance on the train, knows the workers, and has a familiarity with the faces he sees every day. Commuters form own little community rolling down the tracks.
This scene not only lays the groundwork for what comes next, it shows us a quick cross-section of his daily life, family struggles, routine, and more. It’s a clever, effective way to begin, introduces all the key information with a minimum of fuss, and nothing that follows quite lives up to that.
And what does follow is a paint-by-numbers mystery thriller. It hits all the typical notes and plays like Hitchcock-lite. Michael strolls up and down the aisle, piecing together clues, jumping to wrong-headed conclusions, gradually learning the true stakes and discovering he’s in way over his head. It’s fine, and it accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do, but it’s never particularly tense. Instead of the mystery propelling the narrative forward, the pace meanders around as we watch Liam Neeson go through the motions.
After reinventing his career with a slew of Taken movies and similar projects—his work with Collet-Serra certainly falls into this category—Neeson can do this in his sleep. He’s passable, but doesn’t offer much of any interest. The same can be said of Farmiga, who’s shadowy external motivation of a character only shows up in the movie for a few moments. Both Wilson and Neill are completely wasted, as is Breaking Bad favorite Jonathan Banks.
The Commuters isn’t groundbreaking, but no one really makes this type of mid-level, mid-budget action thriller anymore. If they do, it generally goes direct to video. Neeson has the unique ability to get these films traction, adding an air of class and distinction, even though he’s turned this particular niche into a veritable cottage industry. And teaming up with Collet-Serra has provided substantial results—Unknown and Non-Stop are fun in that way that you’ll watch and enjoy when you stumble across them on cable one rainy Saturday afternoon and nothing better happens to be on, but Run All Night is a solid movie IMO.
What The Commuter does have going for it, however, is a willingness to, once things get to a certain point, push past the bounds of logic and reason and take the action to silly, destructive spectacle levels. It’s a manic tendency, and one I can wholly get behind. The film steadfastly refuses to end, and though it’s overlong by 20 minutes or so, if you have the patience to get to the final act, the script from Byron Williger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle just throws up its hands and rewards the audience with a nice touch of crazy.
Just know, at one point, Liam Neeson pummels a dude with a guitar. And mid-way through, there’s a vicious, long—like They Live long—hand-to-hand fight scene that shows the potential Collet-Serra has as an action filmmaker. But too often he relies on CGI trickery—did we really need a shot of the camera pulling back through every pixelated train car?—and big set pieces he doesn’t have the resources to execute properly. It’s like he wants to go big and grand, summer blockbuster style, but his particular set of skills is best suited to grittier action fare.
Still, know The Commuter delivers what it advertises, with a nutty, excessive action cherry on top at the end. It’s not trying to be anything it isn’t; it’s a straightforward, stripped-down thriller with no pretense to artistry or ambition to rewrite genre conventions. It even wraps up with a tidy little bow so we never have to think about it again. In that way, it’s almost refreshing.
There are much better movies that more or less do the same thing, and while it’s not a fully satisfying meal, if you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of a salty snack full of empty calories, you can do worse than The Commuter. [Grade: C+]