Yeah, it’s just another Liam Neeson B-movie thriller.
Yes, we’ve seen “The Commuter” before. Hell, we’ve seen it starring Liam
Neeson and also directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Only that film was set on a plane, not a train, and it was titled “Non-Stop.”
If you can’t guess where this is going by the presence of big-name actors showing up in the credits and in a brief opening scene, you must not get out much.
But this tale of an ordinary Joe being blackmailed to get somebody killed on his daily commute from NYC to Tarrytown, NY is an action picture whose aging hero we care about and root for, a thriller with tension and style, a B-movie Hitchcock would have been happy to call his own.
From its simple but effective prologue, a montage showing the daily routine of Irish ex-pat Michael MacCauley (Neeson), a married insurance agent with a ready-to-trade-houses wife (Elizabeth McGovern), a kid ready to enroll at pricey Syracuse U. and two mortgages, Collet-Serra (“Orphan,” “The Shallows,” “Run All Night”) demonstrates a spare storytelling style with a dazzling eye and a flair for cutting.
Mike’s daily trek includes whatever novel his kid is reading in English class (You don’t get into Syracuse without knowing your English lit), a smile for a train full of familiar, friendly faces (In New York?) and an honest effort to put in another honest day’s work.
Then he’s laid off, cut loose at 60, too broke to have a back-up plan, too horrified to tell his wife. He loses his phone getting onto the train.
And that’s when the mysterious and sexy Joanna (Vera Farmiga) parks herself in the opposite, hum-brags about studying human behavior and posits a pop quiz.
“Someone on this train doesn’t belong,” she says. Could Mike figure out who? Suppose there was a $100,000 payoff if he finds this someone called “Prin?” Could he finger that person, accept a bag of cash and “never know the consequences of what you did?”
She says it’s all “hypothetical,” but we know better, even if Mike is slow to embrace that. “What kind of person are you?” she teases. He’s about to find out.
Mike, it turns out, is an ex-cop. He’s a curious sort who looks for the hidden envelope with the down-payment on the deed. And just as he’s about to do the smart thing, exit the train and maybe call old buddies on the force, the trap is sprung. He’s taken the cash and now he’s got to go through with whatever he’s agreed to.
Thrillers like this rely on a vast array of tech (spy cameras and/or microphones) and a seemingly endless supply of henchmen for unseen villains who can demonstrate their seriousness by pushing a fellow commuter in front of a bus at the next stop. They’re pulling the strings from afar. They’re on board with him, waiting for him to figure out who the mystery rider is for them. They’re armed and murderous.
Seeing Neeson defy Father Time — sort of — has been one of the pleasures of B-movie watching these past several years. The ex-boxer is still convincing taking a beating in a brawl, still willing be that guy, bloodied and increasingly frantic, stalking the aisles of a commuter train, looking for whoever or whatever his tormentors tell him to find. They just might have his wife and son.
Collet-Serra sends his camera hurtling down the center aisle of all the cars in the train, keeps his camera hand-held and jittery when he’s not staging (with digital help) those suspense-building tracking shots. And with his help, Neeson’s Mike seems more manic, more “put this guy on a watch list” as he interrogates/confronts strangers and tries with little success to not come off as a stalker or cop-turned-terrorist.
The train, like the Orient Express, is stuffed with types — the jerk broker who used to work for Goldman Sachs, the put-upon school girl, the frazzled nurse, the backslapping card player.
Farmiga is unfortunately largely off-camera, making threats via cell-phone — “Don’t make me hurt someone else,” and the like. Patrick Wilson plays Mike’s former partner and confidante, Sam Neill is the colleague who made it to Captain, and veteran character player Jonathan Banks is a grizzled fellow commuter of Mike’s acquaintance.
Yet “The Commuter,” like the “Taken” movies and “Non-Stop” and others of his hair-dyeing action dotage, succeeds or fails on Neeson’s broad shoulders. He commits to these characters and, as blood spills and he suffers through tussle after tussle, cliff-hanger after cliffhanger — kinetically staged by Collet-Serra — we believe in him.
Even if we know what he’s got to do long before he does. Even if we know it’s just a formulaic B-movie, Neeson never lets on that he does, or that he’s giving anything less than his Oscar-deserving best.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern
Credits:Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, script by Byron Willinger, Philip di Blasi, Ryan Engle. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:43