Liam Neeson’s punches save the day in this satisfying, 90s-inspired Jaume Collet-Serra locomotive.
And here we thought Kenneth Baranagh’s Murder on the Orient Express was going to be the splashy train mystery of the season. But a modern-day Metro North train with a badass Liam Neeson aboard hijacks that seat smoothly as soon as it leaves New York City’s Grand Central Station in Jaume Collet-Serra’s slick, deliberately over-the-top action-thriller The Commuter. If you’ve seen his efficient, Blake Lively-starring shark movie The Shallows or glossy horror flick Orphan, you already know that Collet-Serra is a reliable name behind the camera to own up to genre clichés and use them with remarkable finesse and economy. He is at it again with The Commuter that shamelessly (actually, let’s make it “proudly”) nods to certain action staples of the 1990s—Speed, Money Train, Daylight, you name it—with a straight face. The result is a silly, yet knowingly old-fashioned action movie, very welcome in an era where only characters wearing spandex in mind-numbing, jumbled action sequences seem to have all the fun. So when The Commuter’s inevitable “next time, take the bus” zinger arrives in its well-orchestrated finale, you can’t help but cheer for the earned cheesiness.
In his fourth collaboration with Collet-Serra, Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a regular Joe with no particular set of skills. (Well, he is an insurance salesman and somehow also an ex-cop, so I guess he does have some skills under his belt.) A suburbanite who takes the same train every day to his monotonous job that he takes pride in, Michael worries about paying his mortgage like countless honest, working American men and sending his teenage son to college alongside his wife (an underutilized Elizabeth McGovern). Through nicely spliced opening credits, artfully edited by Nicolas De Toth (the film’s MVP), we get a sense of Michael’s well-established, time-tested routine, until one day he loses his job unexpectedly for some bizarre excuse. Unwilling to go home early and share the bad news with his supportive spouse, Michael grabs a drink with his trusted buddy Alex (The Conjuring’s Patrick Wilson) before heading to his usual train, where troubles await.
If you were Michael, a hand-to-mouth employee with long years of good service in a dead-end career, what would you do if Vera Farmiga in stylish heels all of a sudden approached you and offered $100K in exchange of one quick, little favor? Like any normal person, Michael inquires about the nature of the favor first. His mission is to find an indistinct passenger on that entire train (with no visual description whatsoever) and tag their bag with a GPS tracker before they get off at the Cold Spring station. Michael agrees at first, suspiciously walking up and down the train cars, making way too much noise and driving excessive attention to himself in his laughable attempts to find his target. (Side note: I would immediately disembark any train with a bruised, sweaty dude restlessly pacing the aisles back and forth.) But soon after, his dignity takes charge and he heroically decides to act in the interest of the passengers against invisible perpetrators that threaten to kill his family, and against Vera Farmiga, who continues to fire orders to him over the phone.
Through an entertaining script penned by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, The Commuter uses its limited assets well, eventhough it ignores certain locational facts (such as, commuter trains don’t stop at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. Come on!) Eventually, we get left alone with a handful of passengers all of whom are suspects and an increasingly desperate Michael, who swiftly beats up some bad guys against a racing clock. Don’t expect The Commuter to make a whole lot of sense in the end (because, well, it won’t.) But there is something undeniably appealing about kicking the year off at the movies with Liam Neeson’s unforgiving punches in a classically nonsensical action film à la Taken. This coherently choreographed, semi-Hitchcockian thriller is not only fun, but it also feels right from the start.