‘Murder on the Orient Express’ meets ‘Non-Stop’, with a dash of ‘Taken’. To be honest, you could describe ‘The Commuter’ as a remix of every action flick Liam Neeson has starred in. His performances in these films seem to be on the same wavelength; broken, grizzled veteran given an opportunity for valour and redemption. In his fourth collaboration with Director Jaume Collet-Serra, Neeson plays a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman called Michael beginning the roughest day of his life. His droning mundane routine is interrupted when he loses his job amid debt and his son’s college tuition worries. He then loses his phone (what a nightmare) as he battles through the hellishly claustrophobic New York subway system. Then he meets a mysterious lady on the train who turns his subway trip, and life, upside down.
This stranger, played by Vera Farmiga, offers him a proposition; he is to locate a passenger on this train “who doesn’t belong” before the final stop for a reward of $100,000 dollars; $25,000 up front and another $75,000 when the mission is completed. Timely for him but too good to be true. Michael will come to learn he is digging a grave for himself, and a few others. With an undeniably intriguing premise, ‘The Commuter’ is its core a morality tale as much as a “whoisit”. Michael’s financial turmoil and desperation push him down a road of no return but he is still yet to discover what kind of man he is despite being 60. He can’t bring himself to confess his monetary distress to his wife and that leaves him willing to play dice with not only his morality and decency but a complete stranger’s life.
Director Collet-Serra, helmed one of my favourite films from 2016, ‘The Shallows’, a straightforward suspense fuelled survival flick. I reckon ‘The Commuter’ could have done with a little more of that simplicity. On the periphery of this plot is some class commentary amid a seemingly bottomless conspiracy straight from the ‘90s. There is talk of corruption and politics that has eaten into the police service. Our script also takes time to showcase a disdain for banks with a one-fingered salute. As Michael looks for the target, we encounter a cross-section of characters from the various parts of the social strata and it’s no surprise the film has an affinity for the working class. There is little insight into the characters, though. Just a few red herrings to ramp up the paranoia a little.
I guess its fair to say our protagonist looks like a madman, with the way he seems to be scampering up and down the aisle for most of the train ride, even getting bloodied and bruised along the way. I imagine real life subway commuters would have sounded the alarm and tied him up, given the terror fears (which we a offered and hint of). Our passengers just mummer with furrowed brows and apprehensive glances. But Michael persists, and kicks some ass too, but not enough for my money. Going into the final act, I hoped the film would have eased itself into more unrestrained action like, say, ‘Under Siege II: Dark Territory’. But the screenplay sticks to the mystery which won’t challenge even the thickest of audiences.
‘The Commuter’ is hovering around 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – mostly a good signal a film won’t take itself too seriously, but serve up fine action and leave you with a lingering nostalgia and satisfaction. Think the first ‘Taken’ film, or the more recent ‘The Accountant’. It’s just about the popcorn and thrills. As far as ‘The Commuter’ is concerned, I’ve seen Neeson in better and I’ve seen him in worse. The action is mostly meh, with too many quick cuts in close quarters melees compensating for our 60-year-old star’s lack of lower body mobility. But we are graced with this quite ambitious brawl in an empty train car between Michael and an attacker. It is shot in a “single take” and it surprised and impressed in equal measure. It’s no Stahelski but it’s one of the best action sequences a Neeson character has featured in.
Neeson’s Michael is sympathetic enough to keep us invested. Like Denzel Washington in his old man action roles, there is this level of seriousness he always attaches to these roles, no matter how paper thin. There is some earnestness to the obligatory scene where Michael concedes his weaknesses and failings, adding a thin layer of depth and this film, like most modern action films wanted for a compelling villain or supporting character to match up to the lead, although the main antagonist here could be said to be time and the abyss it threatens to drag our hero into.
Neeson has served notice of his intent to retire as an action star, and mind you, he is a contemporary icon of the genre – the wildly entertaining ‘Taken’ made sure of that. But it’s a shame none of the subsequent films lived up to following hype. Maybe if some of the collaborating filmmakers attached just as much seriousness as Neeson did to most of the roles, more of the films would have risen above the respectable action and mildly intriguing mark. But it’s January and the aforementioned mark is par for the course.