At the outset of The Commuter, the latest ‘Liam Neeson is forced to hit things’ movie, something happens that I don’t believe I’ve seen in the aging actor’s action iteration: he openly admits to being from Ireland. If memory serves, this is the only time his accent has been acknowledged since before Taken, and since I frequently make jokes about the tremendous actor’s inability to play an American, what can I say? I appreciated it quite a bit.
The Commuter is yet another team up between Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra, who collaborated on Unknown, Run All Night, and Non-Stop. The Commuter is probably the least explosive of their work together, but it is undoubtedly of the same brand. The brand, of course, being “stylish genre exercises that would have been right at home in 1993.” We don’t really see these outside of supremely low-budget pictures, so it’s always nice when one with a fair amount of pedigree like this one rolls around. Sure, it’s starting to feel a bit like Liam Neeson is making parodies of the second act to his career, but somehow that’s part of the fun. The winks and nods are only in the eyes and necks of the audience. Neeson’s action flicks take themselves very seriously, and they’re stronger for it.
Since the film is a mystery, the basic concept is all I feel comfortable sharing, and it’s as follows: Ex-cop and newly jobless insurance salesman Michael MacCauley has been commuting to and from work on the same train for ten long years. He’s friends with most of the regular passengers, acquaintances with the rest. So when he’s approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) and offered a chance to play along with a psychological experiment, his curiosity is piqued. He soon finds that the experiment — would you be willing to hunt down a specific passenger, using minimal information, and place a GPS tracker on their bag to the tune of $100 grand? — is an actual task. And if he doesn’t comply, his wife and son will be killed. So yeah, it’s your typical setup for a Liam Neeson actioner.
From here MacCauley is made to fight, shoot, climb, run, speak tersely into a cell phone, and eat punches in an effort to get the job done. There are a few fun twists and turns, none of which are telegraphed outright, but none of which are particularly shocking. No matter. It’s a blast nonetheless.
Midway through the film there’s a faux-one take fight scene that really uses Neeson’s stature to its advantage while also making great use of the location (a speeding train), and it’s so well shot that it compensates for a few moments of hypercutting in some other moments of fisticuffs. That said, The Commuter is much less concerned with staging brawls than it is with trying to spin a taut, ticking time bomb thriller, and for the most part it’s quite successful. Some wonky effects during the third act escalation don’t quite land, but once again, a limitation ends up being part of the fun. If The Commuter looked any better it would probably look too good.
Rounding out the cast are the notable faces of Johnathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, and Elizabeth McGovern all of whom do a good job, but aren’t major players. The main cast consists mostly of relative unknowns, which works for the ensemble-ish nature of the film. We’re just here to watch Liam Neeson fight a train, which he doesn’t do outright, but he doesn’t NOT do either.
Jaume Collet-Serra has formed his own cottage industry of genre flicks, all of which range from good to great. He made Orphan, the positively chilling family horror film as well as The Shallows, aka The Second Best Shark Movie Ever Made (think about it, you know it’s true). As long as he continues making high-quality pictures with low aims, I see no reason why we should stop him.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.