Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Sera aren’t necessarily the first names you’d pluck out of the air when talking about ideal actor-director pairings, but together, they’ve managed to generate a string of reliably average action thrillers: Unknown, Run All Night, Non-Stop, and now The Commuter.
Like those other films, The Commuter seems tailor-made for people who own loyalty cards for their local cinema: if you’re at a loose end one cold January evening, and you fancy a mid-budget thriller, then you’ll know roughly what to expect here. In a way, it’s Murder On The Orient Express, except with Liam Neeson hitting a guy over the head with an electric guitar.
Neeson stars as Mike McCauley, an ex-New York cop who’s undergone a late-career switch to selling life insurance. For a decade, he’s travelled the same line from the suburbs to Manhattan, but on the fateful day that The Commuter begins, he finds himself abruptly laid off and facing a mountain of debt – the cosy middle-class lifestyle he and his wife and kids enjoyed wasn’t cheap, it turns out, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis.
Still reeling from his dismissal, Mike takes the train back out of New York, and finds himself embroiled in a murderous conspiracy. First, a cold-eyed Vera Farmiga shows up with an offer of $100,000 in cash if he tracks down an anonymous person on the train – though she flatly refuses to say what’ll happen to that person once Mike finds them. Things become more complicated when Mike refuses to play ball with the bad guys who keep ringing him up with increasingly dire threats, and he sets about trying to figure out who they’re after and why.
It’s all a bit like Non-Stop – a paranoid, daft thriller on a plane – minus the wings, though if anything, The Commuter’s even more bonkers than that earlier Neeson vehicle. It’s all sober enough at first: this is a rare 21st century Neeson film that has him playing with something approaching his own accent (it’s established early on that he’s Irish) and that admits to his advancing years – Mike’s 60, and isn’t afraid to admit it.
Not that age has any bearing on Neeson’s ability to punch multiple strangers in the face and chest. As he stalks up and down the carriages, checking ticket stubs on the backs of seats and staring at potential suspects in the face, he cuts an imposing figure, like Poirot with bruised knuckles. The problem is, Mike’s detective skills appear to have gotten a bit rusty in the decade since he stopped serving the public trust; this is one of those films where the protagonist tends to cotton on to the truth long after the audience.
This means that, as a thriller, The Commuter isn’t exactly Hitchcock-calibre. What Collet-Sera does bring to the movie, though, is escalation. What threatens to be a by-the-numbers whodunnit gradually drifts into joyous absurdity – and it’s here, as the violence mounts and the bullets fly, that The Commuter becomes far more entertaining. There’s a familiar yet tense sequence in the middle of the movie that’s actually really good – this marks the departure point from reality, it turns out, as Collet-Sera and his writers let things go deliriously, hilariously off the rails.
From an acting standpoint, The Commuter doesn’t make the best use of a decent cast, which includes Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill and the up-and-coming Florence Pugh in pretty flavourless roles. There’s the constant sense, though, that everyone knows what they’ve let themselves in for – not least Neeson, who reacts to the increasingly bizarre train of events with his typical stoic charisma. There’s stuff in here that would’ve made Roger Moore raise a knowing eyebrow in one of his late-career Bond movies, but Neeson’s refusal to wink at the camera actually makes the film funnier than if he treated the whole thing as an exercise in high camp. The earnestness with which he tells a carriage-load of passengers to stick wet newspapers on the windows, for example, is quite wonderful in its humourlessness.
The Commuter is, in short, completely, wonderfully ridiculous. Although marketed as a mystery-thriller with a side-order of Neeson beat-downs, its second half provides some top-flight comedy – though whether or not it’s intentional is anyone’s guess. By the time the fight sequence involving an axe and a Fender Stratocaster rolled around, we were completely on board.
The Commuter is out in UK cinemas on the 19th January.