Stuck in the station.
Action Hero and (Midlife-)Crisis Management Expert Liam Neeson is back with another two-fisted tale of righteous do-gooding in The Commuter, a standard-issue romp that plays into the star’s late-career status as a force to be reckoned with… albeit one mired in forgettable and sometimes preposterous action movie clichés.
Neeson teams here once again with director Jaume Collet-Serra; The Commuter marks the fourth time that the pair have churned out one of these. But a sense of repetition has set in not just in terms of the Neeson of it all, but also the very setting. 2014’s Non-Stop, also directed by Collet-Serra, placed the action mostly within the confines of a commercial airliner, and now The Commuter takes a similar approach, only this time our hero needs to take down his enemies while riding a train.
The film’s initial premise is interesting enough. Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an insurance salesman who makes the trek into Manhattan every day from his quiet suburban home in order to put food on the table for his family (a barely used Elizabeth McGovern plays his wife) and pay his son’s tuition as he prepares to leave for college. But it’s a dog eat dog world, even for The Neeson, and one day at work he’s told that he’s finished. Cuts are being made, times are tough, and Michael is out.
The put-upon, hardworking, regular-guy shtick suits Neeson, and early on The Commuter feels like it might play up those aspects in a bigger way. We see Michael making an insurance pitch to a young, pregnant couple, and he throws in a bit about the 2008 financial crisis. Neeson as champion for the plainspoken middle-class works well, but this film abandons that thread very quickly as the crux of Michael’s dilemma is soon laid out.
Once he’s on the train home, trying to figure out how to tell his wife that he lost his job, a mysterious woman (played by Vera Farmiga, and like McGovern, also barely present) appears and presents him with an offer he seemingly can’t refuse: All he needs to do is ID a passenger onboard the train that she’s looking for, and he’ll get a hundred grand in return. Of course, this opportunity will turn out to be much more complicated than it at first seems, and it will lead to plenty of Neeson action histrionics in due time.
Setting most of The Commuter on that one train set is an admirable challenge for Collet-Serra to undertake, and he often finds interesting ways to shoot in and around the train (and under it, and over it…). But there are also some attempts at mixing things up that fail, like when Neeson battles one assailant with a swinging guitar while all sense of space and perspective goes out the window for the viewer as the set clearly becomes artificially enhanced at certain points. (That’s not the only thing that goes out the window in this film, by the way; just talk to the stunt people.)
Patrick Wilson also figures into the proceedings as Michael’s old partner — yes, of course Michael used to be a cop — but he too is essentially used as bookends in the film. This seems a shame, as Wilson is an always likable presence and his and Neeson’s few scenes together work well (the two also appeared together in The A-Team — remember that one?). But our hero instead winds up spending most of his time on the train interacting with his fellow commuters, who are mostly played by character actors as one-note caricatures. By the time the inevitable third act twist comes, you’re mostly glad for it just because it means the film is almost over.