At this point, Liam Neeson movies are practically a genre unto themselves, and Liam Neeson-Jaume Collet-Serra movies are quite possibly their apex. The Commuter is one of the best of the bunch. Even though it’s not really anything you haven’t seen before, Neeson’s commitment to the role and Collet-Serra’s at times inspired direction make for a movie that’s hell on wheels. Sure, you can see some of the twists coming from a mile away, but it’s a forgivable sin when they’re executed with so much panache.
For instance, we’ve all seen montages used to denote the passage of time, but not quite the way that Collet-Serra does to open the film. What he gives us is a sort of composite Groundhog Day, a single routine shown to us over the course of a seemingly endless number of days as it repeats over and over again, sunny on some occasions and cloudy on others, overlapping right up until Neeson finally gets onto his commuter train.
As Michael MacCauley, a former cop currently peddling insurance to provide for his wife and son, Neeson is unreasonably great. On paper, his character isn’t all that interesting, but the level of intensity and earnestness that Neeson brings to every role he’s ever taken raise MacCauley — and everything around him, as almost every cast member is a caricature — to another level. There’s Shazad Latif as the business bro, Andy Nyman as the chatty neighbor, Florence Pugh as the punk teen — everyone is playing a part in the most literal sense possible (and with the clunky dialogue to boot), but it comes together.
On his way home after being fired and thereby left in the lurch with a reverse-mortgage that’s been taken in order to pay for his son’s college tuition, MacCauley meets a woman (Vera Farmiga) who poses a hypothetical scenario. There’s a passenger on this train that doesn’t belong. If he can figure out who that passenger is before the end of the line, he’ll receive $100,000 in cash. Obviously this isn’t actually a hypothetical — if he doesn’t mark the passenger with a tracker (that will then signal someone else on board to kill them), then his family will be killed. And just in case he starts getting cocky, they kill off the very first passenger he enlists to help him.
As indicated by the reason behind MacCauley’s desperation, there’s a little class commentary at work in The Commuter. It never quite manages to coalesce — none of the overt morals of the film do — in part because the movie is ultimately so singularly about Neeson kicking ass and taking names (and briefly being schooled on the Brontë sisters by an understated Jonathan Banks) that there’s no space for anything else. And that’s just fine.
Or close to it, anyway. For the most part, the film zips along, but there’s an entire act at the end that could probably have been chopped off or otherwise condensed, with the lean, mean fun of the bulk of the film suddenly bloating into the grim, explosive theatrics that tend to dominate so many blockbusters these days. It’s an unnecessary spectacle, as is only proven by how much more hair-raising the first half of the film is when it’s just Liam Neeson in, on, and around a train, utilizing everything he can in order to stay alive. The shot in which Collet-Serra pulls back from Neeson’s shocked face and then back through the entire train is more thrilling than any of the fireworks that end the movie.
At its heart, The Commuter is very much a how movie rather than a why movie. Yes, there’s a why to be sussed out – why MacCauley, why this passenger, etc. — but it’s not like any character played by Liam Neeson is ever going to completely turn his back on being moral. So, while it’s fun trying to piece together what’s going on, it’s the how that really makes or breaks the movie, and boy, does it make it. How is he going to get back on a moving train after falling out of the bottom of it? How is he going to survive bringing an electric guitar to a knife fight?
The supporting cast is stacked enough that it’s a bit of a pity to see them turn into grist on the Neeson mill (Elizabeth McGovern plays MacCauley’s wife and appears in maybe a minute of the film), but that’s to be expected. This is a film built on a particular formula, after all. And it’s a formula that works. This is now the fourth time that Neeson and Collet-Serra have worked together, with Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015) already under their belts, and as previously mentioned, they’ve boiled this down to such an art that it’s fun to imagine what might come next. Planes, check; trains, check; there are only so many more places to go that are quite so contained as environments for a man to suffer a crisis of conscience, but it’s hard not to hope that the options will be limitless. A boat seems like the obvious next choice. Then a stretch limo, maybe?
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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