The draw of the movie star has diminished. Will Smith can’t open Focus or After Earth, Tom Cruise can’t open American Made or The Mummy. But Liam Neeson has carved out his own niche, attracting viewers to movie after movie of his new personal brand of action-thriller. Here he is Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop and insurance salesman who takes up Joanna (Vera Farmiga, literally phoning in much of her performance) on an obscure offer, which soon leads to murder and mayhem, very stressful for a guy just trying to get home on the train.
So Neeson is the classic Hitchcockian “wrong man” protagonist, an everyman who finds himself in the wrong situation at the wrong time. (Director Jaume Collet-Serra even uses Hitchcock’s famous reverse dolly trick when MacCauley realizes the stakes have become personal.) This leads to plenty of opportunities for MacCauley to awkwardly size up other passengers, growl into phones, and, at the risk of giving the game away, beat up a guy with an electric guitar.
Collet-Serra, admirably eager to maximize pulpy thrills, directs with a restless camera, roaming the length of the train like David Fincher showing what’s going on outside the Panic Room. This serves well during the film’s best setpiece, which takes place on the train’s exterior, but can also create a sense of unreality. The movie’s big one-on-one fight, while entertaining, is a simulated one-take wonder with stitched together takes, like something out of Kingsman. One bar scene in particular is filmed with punishing shakycam.
The Commuter marks director Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson, with a fifth in development. Clearly these two are celluloid soul mates, and while Run All Night has pretensions of being a Heat-style serious family/crime epic, this film is a return to the simple setup of Non-Stop; in both films Neeson’s character must carry out an investigation on a moving vehicle that to the outside observer makes him look like a bloody madman. (Except here it’s not alcohol but Vera Farmiga that leads him astray.)
The screenplay is a stumbling block. I could just stop at saying that, but instead I’m breaking out the bullet points. The hack elements of the script include, but are not limited to:
- A vital twist hinges entirely upon a villain casually saying a clichéd platitude that another character told MacCauley the villain said once before. So the cat is yanked out of the bag just so MacCauley (and the audience) can think “My god, it’s him! J’accuse!”
- In Act 1, a conductor character says that the train will be the death of him, and in Act 3, guess what.
- This movie does that thing I hate where villains tell the hero to do something the hero refuses to do, and after literally killing people, they address the hero and are all, “Dead bodies? That’s all you”. “He’s dead. And whose fault is that?” It’s yours, dumbass, you killed him. It doesn’t matter if you threatened to do it beforehand as a consequence; you created the situation where this person was in danger. With a straight face: the villain of The Fate of the Furious has a more nuanced understanding of choice theory.
- MacCauley keeps seeing really on-the-nose signs for cheap sight gags. He’s stuck on the train and sees, “You could be home right now”. “Please report any suspicious behavior”. “Danger of death.” Har har har.
- Star Trek’s Shazad Latif appears as a caricature of an asshole stockbroker with a bluetooth in place of a heart. Then MacCauley flips him off and says, “On behalf of America’s middle class, fuck you”. Incidentally, he should have said, “On behalf of America’s middle class, here’s my middle finger!”
- Very awkward literary references.
- The screenplay has the plot logic of a stock procedural, and the overall effect is that The Commuter feels like a potboiler trashy pulp novel you might find in a train station.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Even after all that, The Commuter is not a bad film, but rather, it’s what I call a Very Functional Movie. (For me, like last year’s The Dark Tower.) While lacking in a lot of ways, it arrives at the station on time. And the audience I saw it with was so into it. They cheered, they gasped, they applauded at the Spartacus moment. The audience rooted for the hero and hissed at the bad ‘uns. And sometimes, that’s enough.
P.S.: After the opening credits, The Commuter title card shares the screen with… a Paddington 2 poster!!?! That sweet StudioCanal cross-promotion, I guess. This is an excellent transition to recommending that everyone see Paddington 2. Genuinely, the Paddington movies are modern family classics.
P.P.S.: Welcome to 2018 cinema. I suppose you could saw that my New Year’s resolution is to be more active on the blog, hence this mini-review. Look out for these quicker, more casual, more allusive reviews as the year progresses, alongside some splashy full-length reviews and editorials. And my end-of-year coverage will continue with My Film Awards shortly before Oscar nominations are announced, and My Year at the Movies shortly after that.