Sometimes you just want to sit back and watch Liam Neeson beat people up and shoot things, right? I’ve heard it a million times as an excuse for whatever generic action movie Neeson is starring in, and there’s some truth to it. Ever since he rubbed some Icy Hot ™ all over his aching joints and became an unexpected action star with Taken, he’s delivered one easily disposable diversion after another, particularly alongside Spanish helmer Jaume Collet-Serra. That’s fine, they’re effective for what they are meant to be, but even so we deserve better than The Commuter, which is like the dumb cousin to Murder On the Orient Express.
Neeson is quickly running out of public transportation that he hasn’t had a life-threatening experience on. We’ve seen this movie before from Neeson and Collet-Serra, only then it was titled Non-Stop and was on a plane. What’s next? Hostage situation by rickshaw? Watch out for Neeson in The Balloonist, coming in 2019. The Commuter, which sounds like the name of a satirical villain from The Tick, finds Neeson as everyday joe Michael McCauley, an ex-NYPD detective turned financial planner with a wife (Elizabeth McGovern, good to see her again) and a son who is about to go to college. Syracuse, actually, and it ain’t cheap. But Michael finds himself canned from his job suddenly, and faced with the prospect of having nothing at the ripe old age of 60. It’s not a good look.
Michael’s daily routine includes the familiar faces he’s been meeting on the commuter train for years. He knows all the regulars, their patterns, even bits about their lives. That makes him the perfect target for a beautiful, mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, always beautiful, always mysterious) who seems friendly enough. She proposes a hypothetical scenario as a means of testing human behavior. What would you do if you were asked to find someone and do something, which you’ll never know the ramifications of? And for doing it you’ll be paid $100K.
Is it hypothetical? Of course not. “Someone on this train doesn’t belong”, she tells him. Find that person, do something, get paid. Michael has a choice, but not really. He’s being watched by one of those omniscient villain-types who controls everything from afar and sees everything. With a phone call someone can be killed on any street block in the city. It happens. Michael is suitably terrified. His family is threatened, too. Better find this jabronie, , get paid, free the fam, and move on.
Like the aforementioned ‘Orient Express’, the train is full of many potential suspects, each with a defining personality trait for Michael to latch on to and analyze, but also to fool the audience. The jerkoff hedge fund manager? He seems like a likely candidate, plus we really want to see him get punched. The script, credited to three (!?!?) writers even teases our baser instincts by setting up a number of minorities as red herrings. The shady black guy with the guitar, the Slavic dude who looks like he probably took a beating from Neeson in Taken? Guilt written all over his beard.
With Collet-Serra’s camera swooping around the train’s tight confines, Neeson stomps up and down the aisles ridiculously. In a train full of likely suspects the only guy who comes off like a total creep is Michael, getting into fights, interrogating innocents, rifling through personal belongings, firing guns, all while the passengers look at him as a minor disturbance in an otherwise dull commute. It’s rather absurd, and if the film didn’t take itself so seriously there might have been some fun to be had with the schlocky B-movie premise. But that’s not the mode Neeson finds himself in (he only seems to poke fun at himself in cameos); although co-stars like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson (How is this not a spinoff of The Conjuring??), and Sam Neill seem to recognize exactly what kind of movie they’re in. They’re chewin’ it up.
Michael doesn’t prove to be much of a detective, and the whole mystery plot never develops convincingly. It seems to exist solely so that we can watch Neeson go through the motions of what his fans expect. Awkwardly, a massive CGI train disaster is thrown into the mix like something out of the Denzel Washington film Unstoppable. It’s so laughably out of place that it actually pumps the brakes when it should be upping the stakes.
The Commuter is a lot like your average commuter going to work each day, best left alone.