Liam Neeson just can’t seem to quit action movies. He’s repeatedly talked of retiring from the genre (“I’m sixty-fucking-five. Audiences are eventually going to go: ‘Come on!’”) only to then turn around and completely contradict himself (“I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground. I’m unretired.”) So, who knows if The Commuter, his fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra after Unknown, Run All Night and Non-Stop, is the end of the line for what just might go down as the most improbable run for any action star in film history. However, if this is it what an entirely appropriate note to go out on: The Commuter is familiar, unintentionally mockable and more than a bit silly, but it’s also a lot of fun and one of the better efforts from Neeson and Collet-Serra, even if all they’ve really done here is remake Non-Stop on a train.
Neeson plays an ex-cop-turned-life-insurance-salesman with a lengthy daily train commute to his office in New York City. One day, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on the train with a hypothetical situation which quickly turns very real: somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, and if he can figure out who and place a tracker on their bag he gets $100,000, money he sorely needs to pay for his son’s college tuition. He can’t tell anyone about it or call for help nor can he even get off the train until the job is done. What becomes of the person whose bag he tags isn’t his concern. If he breaks the rules people around him will start getting killed and his family will be kidnapped.
Varmiga then quickly exits the train and gives him one stop to think about it, sending messengers and contacting him on the phone for any further communication. Before he fully knows what’s happening, he’s stuck playing her game.
And…that’s just about it, really. It’s a perfectly simple set-up for a perfectly diverting B-movie, one which packs plenty of tension into a swift 105 minutes, veering from one false-lead to another before exploding into an over-the-top finale.
The weird thing about The Commuter, though, is how serious it wants to be at the start. There’s an impeccably edited opening condensing years of Neeson’s life into the same routine he follows on his commute to and back from work every day. Then there’s all this finger-wagging 1% vs. 99% rhetoric, raging against systemic corporate and police corruption in an effort to clearly present Neeson’s character as a man of the people. He’s just like us, simply a nice guy trying to make ends meet in a world that is rarely ever nice, still struggling all these years later to recover from The Great Recession. Damn the man!
It’s never subtle, but this bit of character establishment is actually very effective. The problem is once the actual dumb-but-fun action portion of the story kicks in on the train the inevitable escalation of the stakes ensures the movie we start in is not the same one we end with. We start with something closer to The Big Short and somehow end with even more of a 90s action movie pastiche than usual for Neeson. Beyond that, the tension on the train starts out Hitchcockian (including a signature Vertigo-shot) but eventually turns into something Renny Harlin would be proud of.
So, there’s some definite whiplash involved with watching The Commuter. But it’s a Liam Neeson movie. On a train. And, ala Taken and Non-Stop, he talks to or communicates with the villain via a cell phone throughout the whole thing. You know what you’re signing up for. I mean, at one point Neeson beats someone up with their own guitar. A guitar! And it looks like a child’s plaything in his gargantuan hands!
Plus, as a bonus, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, and Jonathan Banks all pop up as side characters.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Want a classy, drawn-out mystery-on-a-train movie? Check out Murder on the Orient Express. Want an enjoyably dumb one that never lets up? Check out The Commuter.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Liam Neeson actually gets his ass kicked a lot in this movie. The script repeatedly points out that his character is 60-years-old and a decade removed from his days as a cop. So, it is at least a nice new look that he doesn’t super spy his way through every fight scene and always mop the floor with opponents who are all half his age.
- The Commuter gets extra points for having Liam Neeson say, “On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you, Goldman Sachs!”
- What an odd coincidence that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the central stars of The Conjuring universe, would both be in this movie but never share a scene together.
Have you seen The Commuter? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments.