Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
It’s strange that the Taken films kickstarted this hugely lucrative second phase in Liam Neeson’s career seeing as how they’re all – all – dreadful, artless, xenophobic slogs. But sometimes the means aren’t as interesting as the ends. They’ve brought us to this point, here and now, ten years on. And its probable that Neeson might soon hang up his action spurs and return to the roles that used to most commonly pay his mortgage; mentors, emperors, kings, and all of the above in voice-over. His action sojourn has been a hit and miss run, all told, and you’d be forgiven for having reached the point of fatigue a year or two back. But if The Commuter turns out to be his last, he’ll have ended, just as unexpectedly, on a high.
Here he partners up again with genre man Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, The Shallows) for the kind of high concept situational action thriller that you couldn’t move for back in the ’90’s, but which have become scarce in the age of spandex and expanded cinematic universes. Has the script for The Commuter been gathering dust? This retro piece of work is an uneven journey, but the final destination is so joyously cheesy that its worth the fare to get there.
Neeson plays 60-year-old ex-cop and family man (of course) Michael MacCauley. Every day for the last ten years he’s made the same commute by train from the leafy suburbs to the bustling metropolis of New York where he’s been working as an insurance man. Collet-Serra uses the credits sequence to collide the years together. It’s a small phenomena of its own and one of the best movie openers of recent months. With rapid fire economy, a sense of repetition and routine is set. Then Michael gets fired and everything changes.
On his journey home – and with his cell phone already stolen (not a coincidence, obviously) – he gets talking with a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga). Joanna offers him a conundrum of sorts; can he find the person who doesn’t belong on the train? There’s $100,000 in it for him if he can, but there’ll be consequences for the target, if found. Without realising what he’s doing, Michael buys into the concept, triggering a series of increasingly loopy events.
Appearing so soon after Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express, Collet-Serra’s Friday night popcorn flick is more than ready to play against it. He milks Michael’s escalating situation for the requisite amount of twitchy paranoia. We’re handed a bunch of suspects, and the train is peppered with established character actors (Jonathan Banks, Colin McFarlane) and unknowns so as to engage the audience in fake-outs and double bluffs. Your better mysteries won’t assume an audience’s intelligence, nor will they cheat. This middle section is the film’s most workmanlike as poor Michael finds the goalposts of his mission in a constant state of flux. And wouldn’t you know it, his family have been kidnapped.
That last is the hook to keep him invested in this weird little scenario, but one can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t shoehorned in deliberately as a wink to the Neeson audience. “Yes. Again.” It wouldn’t be unfitting if this were the case, because there’s a lot about The Commuter that feels knowing and playful. It’s bound into that constant sense that this is a film out of time, one indebted to the half-forgotten droves of bargain bin titles that are now stacked five deep in your local CEX. Movies where a few lines of dialogue are all you need to file a character correctly into his or her ‘type’. Joanna even acknowledges that, in psychology, there are 16 different personality types. The Commuter then delights in presenting you characters that fit snappily into prefigured expectations. Only guilt or innocence remain a mystery.
Michael pieces together the plot as he goes, therefore so do we. But once it gets passed a certain point, Collet-Serra accelerates, violently, into the realm of the preposterous. You can either exit the ride at this point or grab on with both hands. If you take what follows in the spirit that its intended you’ll be richly rewarded with some of the most spectacularly hammy resolutions (there are multiple) one could’ve hoped for. In doing so The Commuter delves deep into all sorts of cine-literate pockets, some expected (Speed), others less-so (Oldboy… Spartacus?). And all the while you can kick back and marvel at how one 60-year-old guy can repeatedly take such a beating.
It’d all be rather average if the script wasn’t so knowing and if the director wasn’t so industriously ready to try raising the game. Yeah I mentioned Oldboy. And though he doesn’t come close to matching that film’s infamous corridor scene, and it’s edits are glued together with patchwork CGI, Collet-Serra at least attempts to turn a one-on-one train car brawl into a breathless ‘single take’ set piece. In fact DP Paul Cameron’s camera frequently feels like a character in the movie itself. It’s often right in someone’s face, reminding you of the pressure-cooker claustrophobia that is public transport.
Let’s not get lost in hyperbole though. This is just another violent Liam Neeson picture. But, like it’s hero, it’s a surprisingly spry one. And it’s at least as entertaining as it’s semi-contemporary, Sang-ho Yeon’s Train To Busan. No, there are no zombies here, but there’s an excess of silliness of other sorts. The Commuter is turn-your-brain-off fun… except it’s quite fun with your brain on, too. If Neeson can rustle up a few more of these, it’ll be worth it before he exits the action movie stage. It might even all have been worth it.