It’s mid-January, and this is the first official film of 2018 to get a look (the previous two reviews were technically 2017 releases). The winter months tend to be dumping grounds for the major studios – films they either don’t believe will make money or just don’t believe are any good. With the main focus of the entertainment industry on Awards Season and studios focused on marketing the prestige cinema, the movies released in January and February tend to be, if not exactly bad, ultimately forgettable. There are exceptions, however, like Get Out last year, and even classics like The Silence of the Lambs, which won Best Picture despite an early year release.
Still, The Commuter certainly falls into the standard winter release group. It’s not a bad movie, per se, but there’s just not quite enough there to recommend it, mostly because a lot of things get muddled stylistically, and the film’s logic and politics make little real sense.
This is the fourth collaboration between Liam Neeson (one of my all-time favorite actors) and Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (the previous ones being Unknown, Run All Night, and the underrated Non-Stop, another winter dump that turned out to be pretty spectacular for what it was), and it’s clear Collet-Serra had some classic cinema – particularly Alfred Hitchcock – on the brain as this movie was being made. The inciting incident of the film is essentially a straight up ripoff of Strangers on a Train, and some of the camera work, particularly the zoom effects, evoke films like Vertigo. Hell, departing from Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick, there’s a Spartacus reference towards the end that was so unintentionally funny that I almost laughed over the actual, intended punchline.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a typical middle-class New Yorker. He used to be a cop, but the NYPD salary wasn’t enough for him and his wife to make ends meet, especially after the housing collapse, so he took a job as an insurance salesman. The first 20 minutes or so of the film establish him as about as average a Joe as you can get. He wakes up to the same alarm clock radio every morning (shades of Groundhog Day), he’s helping his teenage son get into Syracuse (shout out to my alma mater!), he has typical arguments and conversations with his wife. Oh, and he and his son read a lot of books. Don’t worry, the books mean about as much to the plot as they do to Donald Trump.
So one day in late summer, poor Mike is laid off, a mere five years from retirement. And to add insult to injury, his severance package is a life insurance policy. Gosh darn it, he’s just an honest, hard-working guy who got screwed for playing by the rules. After a few beers with his former police partner and some grousing about the 1%, (which is a valid point that I wish had been better explored) he heads to his commuter train to take him home, just north of New York City.
While on the train he is greeted by a woman known only as Joanna (a wasted Vera Farmiga), who on the pretense of being a professional judge of character, offers Michael a “hypothetical.” Someone on the train doesn’t belong there, and they have something important in their bag. All Joanna knows is that they are calling themselves “Prynne.” If Michael finds this person and prevents them from getting off the train in Cold Spring (or at minimum attaching a GPS tracker to their bag), he’ll be paid $100,000, a quarter of which is waiting for him in the bathroom as an incentive. Mike takes the money, but immediately has second thoughts, and before he knows it, things turn sinister and the body count starts ticking up. He has just over an hour to find “Prynne” or he and his family will be killed. This is actually one of the more clever choices in the film, as the train ride is almost real time, coinciding with the 90-minute run-time.
Now, here’s where things start to figuratively go off the rails (before they do literally). Joanna claims that she can judge people’s characters, and because of this presumably she knows Michael will take the money (there’s even a tossed off explanation towards the end about motive and opportunity that tries to lend nonexistent credibility). The thing is, not one ounce of information we’re given about Michael in the opening montage suggests he’d be the type of person to accept such an obviously shady deal. What’s more, as an ex-cop, one would assume he’d be held to an even higher standard of decorum. He of all people would be able to sense that something untoward was going on. But instead he just takes the money and watches people die every time he hesitates, his punishment for violating “rules” that were never actually explained.
Collet-Serra tries his best to create a foreboding, claustrophobic atmosphere to the train. It starts off very crowded, and one of the compartments is empty because the air conditioning is broken. Having taken these trains before, I can guarantee you that would have stopped absolutely no one. The cars have windows. It wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable, but there are a lot of people that would trade a bit of sweat and a breeze from an open window just to be able to sit down for the ride. The empty compartment is sadly, just another misdirect (it’s not like anyone passes out from heat exhaustion or anything), and really, a pre-made space for a couple fight sequences. There are some cool bits of camera work, particularly the punched tickets hanging from seats being used as makeshift peepholes for the lens.
But still, a lot of the suspense hinges on unseen subterfuge and sleight of hand, which has little to no effect when you figure out who “Prynne” is about 15 minutes into the train ride (despite the film’s endless quest to create red herring suspects), and who the real villain is long before “Prynne” reveals the final twist. For example, the great Jonathan Banks is an early casualty (not a spoiler since it’s in the trailer), and it’s revealed later that Joanna has at least one assassin on the train. The problem is, she taunts Michael over the phone as if she can see his every move, yet not once is there any mention of cameras, microphones, or any surveillance material, and given that Michael paces up and down the train, it’s impossible for the hitman (or hitmen) to keep an eye on him. Yet she literally seems to know everything he’s doing at all times, enough so that she can hire some random kid to greet him at the next station after she leaves to give him his wife’s wedding ring as a threat. How did the kid know which door to go to?
So yeah, thinking about the actual plot shoots it more full of holes than the actual random gunshots that go off throughout. Now, there are some positives. Like I said, there’s some clever camera work and the 24-esque confined time frame works to decent effect. Also, the actual set pieces are pretty fun. The camera stays fairly focused so that the fights look natural instead of being hastily chopped together in the edit bay, and even when he’s phoning it in Liam Neeson is still just a lot of fun as an actor. His performance is nothing groundbreaking, but his presence is assuring enough that you can kind of sense that this movie would be so much worse in someone else’s hands. Again, this is the fourth time Neeson and Collet-Serra have worked together. There’s a familiarity of style that allows them to get the best they can out of each other. That sort of professional rapport is rare, but effective when it happens.
But still, that doesn’t make up for what comes off as a lazy thriller. And honestly, I’ll just ask the question, where are all these conspiracies coming from? And why do they always have to fuck with Liam Neeson? What makes this film and others like it so tedious is that there’s always some nebulous “they” who’s ruining his life, threatening his family, and killing pretty much indiscriminately. Forgive me if I’m channeling Jerry Seinfeld, but WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!?!?! There’s rarely a viable explanation in any of the other films of this subgenre, and there’s certainly not one here.
So now, the real question: I actually paid to see this. Should you? The best I can say is, it depends. This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not exceptionally good either. Still, it’s probably the best pure entertainment film that will come out during the studio dump, in case you need a theatrical respite from Awards Season. But honestly, unless you’re really jonesing for a night out at the movies without having to worry about Oscar nominations, save your money and wait until it comes out on DVD in a few months. Or just watch Non-Stop again, before Collet-Serra completes the Planes, Trains, & Automobiles trifecta sometime in the next few years by trapping Liam Neeson in a driverless car or something.