We’ve been here before. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, following the success of Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015), and The Commuter largely follows the formula of those three previous thrillers by placing Neeson as an everyman–albeit one with both some extra talents and personal baggage–in an extraordinary situation that he must solve and/or best to a) clear his own name, b) save others’ lives and c) transcend/redeem his personal foibles.
The template actually kind of worked on Unknown and Non-Stop, capitalizing on Neeson’s post-Taken reboot as a somewhat inexplicable action hero and providing harmless B-movie entertainment in the early winter months of their given years, when quality films can be few and far between (interestingly, the more character-driven and cerebral of the three, Run All Night, was the least successful at the box office). With The Commuter, Collet-Serra and his star return to the action-oriented style of their first two team-ups, but it’s clear that a third trip to that particular well is coming up largely empty.
The Commuter opens with a montage as striking as it is stylized, hinting at the more ambitious filmmaker lurking underneath Collet-Serra’s journeyman exterior. We meet Michael MacCauley, a retired cop turned insurance salesman, as he wakes to a 6:00 am alarm next to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and gets his day started: coffee, shower, dress, run for the commuter train into New York City. We see this repeat over several years, with a child introduced and growing up along the way, and the three family members going about their daily business together. It’s a thoughtfully crafted way to show the passage of time and establish MacCauley’s life with just a few minutes of screen time.
When we settle into the present, MacCauley and his wife are struggling to figure out how to pay college tuition even as their budget is already stretched to the breaking point with a second mortgage (this is The Commuter’s one attempt at social commentary, showing the plight of the middle class these days). But things get much dicier when MacCauley is unexpectedly fired, just five years from retirement, and has to face the prospect of going home to tell his wife the news.
As he seats himself on the train home, however, he is propositioned by a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who sits opposite him: find a certain passenger on the train, put a GPS tracker on that person, and MacCauley can collect $100,000, with a $25,000 down payment already stashed in a lavatory on the train. The problem is that MacCauley must somehow identity the person on his own, and he soon realizes that the person is targeted for death. Unfortunately, by the time that realization hits, the desperate MacCauley has already accepted the $25K and is trapped in a course of action that will bring harm to his own family as well if he doesn’t do what Joanna and her shadowy benefactors want.
The opening scenes of The Commuter are fraught with tension, especially once the plot is set in motion, and in this way it most resembles Non-Stop, in which Neeson’s alcoholic air marshall had to identity a terrorist on a plane while avoiding being framed himself. A similar situation emerges here, with MacCauley soon identified as a crazy man rampaging on a train, but the plot does not move as elegantly as it did in that earlier film. The mechanics of how MacCauley must find the target are overcomplicated and increasingly unbelievable (even for a film like this), with Joanna somehow enjoying almost godlike powers of surveillance, and the 60-year-old MacCauley undergoing a series of physical challenges that would most likely best a man of 40, let alone an ex-cop who’s still in reasonably good shape but has been behind a desk for 10 years (Neeson, to his credit, could do this stuff with his eyes closed but commits to his performance throughout).
The Commuter finally and literally goes off the rails in the third act, but by then the narrative twists and turns are more banal than surprising, and you’re just waiting for the inevitable and expected payoff. Although the plot drags itself down, Collet-Serra largely keeps the pace of the film up, but his attempts at making the material visually interesting–a long extended shot down the entire length of the train, an extended, seemingly one-take fight sequence–only end up showing the seams where CG is being employed in what should nominally be a gritty and non-enhanced narrative.
It’s not the worst way to waste a couple of hours on a chilly January afternoon, but The Commuter is easily the least of Neeson and Collet-Serra’s quartet of potboilers. The director has done some interesting work outside their thrillers as well (his Orphan is still one of the more bonkers horror movies of the past decade), so it’s disappointing to see him and the always watchable Neeson deliver something so rote. The Commuter is, in many ways, just like that daily train ride that millions of people take every day: you forget it ever happened the minute you disembark.
The Commuter is out in theaters on Friday, Jan. 12.