Let me imagine, if you will, the type of back and forth that would take place between Liam Neeson and his agent regarding a new script that’s been sent in. Neeson asks, “Does it have a cell phone?” “Yes,” the agent replies. “I’ll do it,” Neeson responds, without hesitation. The agent suggests that he may like to read the script first, to which Neeson firmly responds, “There’s no need!” It’s the type of relationship that I like to think they would have; after all, it would explain the last ten years of Neeson’s career.
His latest cellular exploit is The Commuter, a fast-paced action-thriller set on a commuter train travelling from Manhattan to upstate New York. Neeson plays Michael, a former cop turned insurance broker whose day goes from bad to worse when he is fired from his job and then propositioned by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She sits opposite him and engages in small talk, and it doesn’t take long for her to give him an ultimatum: find a specific stranger on the train before it reaches the town of Cold Spring– or say goodbye to his family. With no time for Michael to comprehend the situation, she steps off the train, leaving him to put the pieces together. It soon becomes clear that he is being watched, and so begins a Hitchcockian race against time that plays out like Agatha Christie on crack.
With Neeson’s reputation for formulaic thrillers over the past decade, and the knowledge that The Commuter is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Unknown, Run All Night), there’s an unavoidable ““ and unfortunate ““ expectation going into their latest collaboration. And for a while, it must be said, it appears that we shouldn’t have underestimated them, with a stirring introduction and a first act that builds a set-up more akin to a respectable arthouse thriller. It’s well shot and technically interesting, featuring an unexpected time-lapse sequence to paint a picture of Michael’s daily routine. But, just as it gets close to convincing us that we may have rushed to an early judgement, it descends into the typical nonsense we assumed we would get in the first place.
For the most part, The Commuter is a fun ride, albeit a silly one. Staying true to its genre tropes, the movie builds a run-of-the-mill ‘whodunit’ story by making every character the potential person of interest. Some faces are familiar to moviegoers while others are not, and with an ambiguous plot taking place in and out of the train, there are red herrings littered throughout the film, making it surprisingly unpredictable. Sadly, the final act spirals out of control, both metaphorically and conceptually. And far be it for me to spoil the movie for you, I will leave the most perplexing aspects for you to discover yourself.
Neeson has become so ‘one’ with his typecasting that he needs only a cell phone in hand to deliver a reliable turn, and I cringe when saying that he phones in his performance… but that’s precisely what these movies amount to for him. Like Bruce Willis throughout the 90s, he is reliable, although one can’t help but think that he’s running out of steam (he recently announced that he’s retiring from action movies).
The supporting cast is comprised of reliable players giving dependable performances. Names like Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern and Sam Neill… and Farmiga, of course. They are joined by less familiar (but experienced) faces, including Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Clara Lago and Ella-Rae Smith amongst others. It is a good cast, indeed, and they collectively elevate The Commuter‘s ludicrous execution with a much-needed sense of frivolity. The movie is rarely amusing aside from a few throwaway gags, but there is always a sense of levity amongst the players.
The Commuter can be dismissed as tosh, and in today’s cinematic climate it’s probably better suited to a direct-to-video release. Nevertheless, it harks back to the brand of action-thriller from the 80s and 90s that we once scoffed at, but now hold nostalgia for. If you recall movies like Passenger 57 or Executive Decision with affection, then this “final” Liam Neeson caper might just hit the spot.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10