A film review by Craig J. Koban January 20, 2018

THE COMMUTER jj
 

2018, PG-13, 104 mins.

 

Liam Neeson as Michael  /  Vera Farmiga as Joanna  /  Patrick Wilson as Alex  /  Sam Neil as Captain Hawthorne  /  Elizabeth McGovern as Karen 

 

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra  /  Written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle

Every year around this time we get yet another entry in the Liam Neeson takes names and kicks ass action thriller genre, which joyously celebrates the sixtysomething actor giving another thanklessly grounded and committed performance that's centered in an overall narrative that ridiculously - if not entertainingly - flips the bird to earth bound logic.  

I'll be the first to admit that I've largely been an apologist of these films and have enjoyed them for their B-grade eccentricities, and THE COMMUTER - which re-teams Neeson for a fourth time with director Jaume Collett-Serra after previously working on RUN ALL NIGHT, UNKNOWN, and NON-STOP - is yet another example of this Neeson career redefining genre of films that the actor literally has all to himself.  It works at times as a passably engaging mystery potboiler with the type of action that fans of these films have come to expect, but familair conventions and troupes are starting to rear their ugly heads here, and THE COMMUTER - despite its low calorie, junk food nourishment value - seems too tired and derivative for its own good.  

That, and it has more than a fleeting resemblance to the aforementioned NON-STOP, which was a Hitchcockian themed thriller set 30,0000 feet in the air.  To be fair, the types of Nessonian archetypes that populate these films - everyman heroes that find themselves wrongfully accused and/or facing seemingly insurmountable threats to their livelihoods that then must take matters into their own hands to right wrongs - have been core staples of these stories since the actor rebranded his image with the first TAKEN.  THE COMMUTER starts off with relative promise by introducing us to another Neeson everyman-turned-man-of-action hero in the form of Michael McCauley, who works a peaceful and quiet job as an insurance salesmen that takes the very same Manhattan commuter train to work day in and day out.  Despite being relatively happy with his job and family, crippling debt is starting to weigh heavily on him.  With two mortgages and a son with a future and very expensive college tuition bill to pay, Michael starts to really feel the financial strain.  And with the 2008 financial meltdown he and his family lost all of their savings.    

 

 

Michael faces yet another kick-to-the-balls setback when he's terminated from his company due to corporate cutbacks, leaving him unemployed and frightened at the prospects for him and his family.  Emotionally ravaged and unsure as to his future, Michael has a very chance meeting with a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) while on the train ride home after his hellish work day, during which time she initially flirts with him and then proclaims herself to be a specialist in human behavior.  She then proposes a very tantalizing offer: If he is to locate and find a very specific passenger on the train that she and her "associates" are looking for then he'll be awarded $100,000...no strings attached.  At first, the incredulous Michael laughs at such an offer, but very soon it becomes clear that the woman's pledge was indeed no joke.  Unfortunately, the deeper Michael dives into the mystery of finding this enigmatic person on the train the more he begins to realize that there's a darker murderous intent from the woman.  Worse yet, when Michael makes any effort to back away, she threatens to abduct and kill his family if he doesn't produce results.  

Worst.  Day.  Ever.   

Collet-Serra is clearly looking to appropriate a Hitchcockian vibe here, especially seeing as THE COMMUTER follows the quintessential premise of that master's many films: a normal man caught up in caught up in extraordinary circumstances and who ultimately finds himself wrongfully accused of a crime.  The overreaching premise of the film is quite juicy, seeing as the down on his luck and unemployed Michael that's facing irreparable financial ruin is offered an enticing opportunity to turn his life around, albeit with some questionable motives from a duplicitous outside force.  Collet-Serra does a solid job early on of introducing us to the monotonous rigors of Michael's occupational world and his trials and tribulations of marriage and parenthood, which gives his later fall from grace a bit of middle working class rage that initially fuels his desire to partake in the woman's offer.  Much of the suspense that THE COMMUTER generates in its early stages is seeing the desperate Michael realize the severity of the scenario he's unwittingly placed himself in, which leads to him working against the clock to locate and find the hard to locate and wanted by all passenger.  This person of interest - carrying a bag that contains unspecified contents that are of grave importance to multiple parties - becomes the de facto Hitchcockian McGuffin.  

Two other things work exceedingly well in THE COMMUTER, the first of which being, obviously enough, the sheer presence of Neeson alone, who continues to demonstrate a stalwart charisma and an aura of veracity in all of these films that would have been completely undone by any lesser actor on board that would have played things too broadly.  Despite the madness that Neeson finds himself cemented within, he nevertheless plays these characters with a credible level of world weariness and grizzled drive.  You believe in Michael's desperation because Neeson sells it so flawlessly.  Of course, THE COMMUTER wouldn't be complete without action, and Collet-Serra creates a few real bone-crunching doozies, especially one midway that features Neeson battling an assailant that involves a knife, a gun, and an electric guitar...but in no specific order.  Even though the sequence superficially looks like it was done in one long take, but appears to be the product of some CG tinkering...it's still quite a rush to behold.  

Having said all of that, this leads me to some of the nagging issues with THE COMMUTER, such as some of the plot's awfully forced contrivances, like, for example, the somewhat nonchalant manner that the script neatly throws in the fact that Michael is an ex-cop, which laughably figures in very conveniently when his character is forced to duke it out with his unruly targets.  The film would have been more compelling if it kept Michael an ordinary meek man called into action, but that paradoxically wouldn't have allowed for the story's requirement of having Neeson go plausibly mano-a-mano with multiple attackers.  The overall plot itself - especially when one scrutinizes it after leaving the cinema - doesn't really make a hill of beans worth of sense when trying to put all of its various pieces and revelations together.  Most of what transpires in the film's opening half is legitimately thrilling and actively allows for our immediate buy-in, but late breaking developments seem positively ham fisted and becomes peppered with one too many implausibilities for its own good.  The manner that THE COMMUTER segues from a pretty decent cat and mouse thriller to howl-inducing nonsense is to its detriment.  Plus, it lazily adheres to the Law of Economy of Characters (the mystery person is always the only character in the movie that seems otherwise extraneous) more so than any other recent film.  Because one key and well known actor is cast as a particular character and is shown in a brief scene early on...it becomes pretty easy to deduce that he'll figure in heavily in the plot later.  

The twists and turns of Hitchcockian thrillers should never be easy to navigate through, but THE COMMUTER really fumbles the ball in this respect.  Plus, there were obvious opportunities for the film to engage in some compelling social/political commentary about economic class warfare that the makers here simply don't have the inclination to wade through.  Collet-Serra also gets too CGI-happy with a few key sequences, which undermines the film's pulpy grindhouse action thrills.  I can't say that I didn't have fun during some moments of THE COMMUTER, and Neeson - playing the umpteenth variation of his now firmly entrenched character type - remains as infectiously appealing to watch as ever (his action heroes are always cut from a more vulnerable and world weary cloth, which helps elevate them apart from others).  Despite its pleasurable low rent appeal, I can't bring myself to recommend THE COMMUTER as being worthy of a theatrical admission price, seeing as it's a serviceable VOD rental at best.  

But I will say this: No other living and respected actor could make trash like this as watchable as Neeson.  

Not by a long shot.    

  H O M E