As the seasoned moviegoers that I’m sure most of you are, you don’t need me telling you that the month of January has long been considered a dumping ground for bottom-of-the-barrel junk that the various distributors are well aware will be largely ignored by the public, as they’re likely scrambling to catch up with end-of-year, awards-season titles from the end of 2017. In fact, if you look at the lineup for your local multiplex, there are likely at least a dozen truly great titles from which you may select. And every January, there’s usually a Liam Neeson movie tossed in the mix as well; occasionally, they’re just bizarre enough to be enjoyable.
I’m in no way saying that Neeson’s latest, The Commuter, is a great movie. But the set up is phenomenal and the mystery at its center is actually quite effective, before the film becomes insane and implausible…well, more implausible than it already is. If I’m doing my math right, this is the fourth collaboration between Neeson and Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also made Unknown, Run All Night and, most important to this conversation, Non-Stop, to which The Commuter is remarkably similar in it’s “trapped on a mode of transportation” scenario.
Instead of a plane, this time around Neeson is on a commuter train heading from downtown New York City into the suburbs. He’s been riding this line for 10 years, so he’s gotten to know the faces (and even a few names) of some of the other riders to and from the city. On this particular day, his Michael MacCauley unceremoniously loses his job as an insurance salesman right when his family is especially cash strapped. A former police officer, he meets his best friend Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson; and yes, his character’s name is the same as the one Peter Weller played in Robocop) for drinks, bemoaning his situation and the fact that he’s afraid to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) when he goes home. But eventually, he leaves the bar and heads back to the train station.
Once on the train, he is approached by a stranger named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who proposes what at first seems like a hypothetical test about doing one small thing involving another passenger that could potentially net him $100,000 cash. Before she leaves the train, she makes it clear this is not a random encounter and that if he takes the money, he’s committed to the job or his family will pay the price. She also seems acutely aware of his skills as a detective and the fact that he’s a regular on this train. His job is to find someone with a particular name that “doesn’t belong” before they get off at a certain stop, tag that person with a tracking device, and walk away.
In addition to working with Neeson on four films, director Collet-Serra helmed his early work, the so-wrong-it’s-right Orphan (co-starring Farmiga) and the surprise hit from two years ago, The Shallows. And with The Commuter, it’s clear the guy knows how to ramp up the tension, establishing the geography of the train so we have some sense of where everybody is at any given moment. There are twists, turns, mistakes, shocks, all of which slowly reveal to us just how big a conspiracy Michael is entangled in. Sadly, the film’s final act turns what was a character-driven mystery and metaphor for how the rich and powerful use the financially strapped to do their bidding into a pure action exercise that isn’t nearly as compelling or enjoyable.
Again, this shift into more conventional territory doesn’t derail the entire film (pun intended), but it does take the edge off what had been a fairly exciting and tension-filled romp through a diverse cast of mostly unknown actors, all of whom get to shine to varying degrees. By the end, it’s Neeson vs. the baddies, and we’ve seen that too many times for it to still be interesting.
I’m still recommending The Commuter, but prepare to experience deja choo-choo. Alright, I’ll stop…