Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of the Liam Neeson action movies, going all the way back to TAKEN (2008).
It’s been a fun ride, but these films are starting to wear out their welcome. The trailers for THE COMMUTER didn’t look so hot, and the initial reviews were pretty bad, but being a Liam Neeson fan, I still wanted to check it out.
Yup, the formula is definitely wearing thin, but that being said, I still enjoyed THE COMMUTER, even though I pretty much didn’t believe any of it.
In terms of storytelling, THE COMMUTER gets off to a strong start as former cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) abruptly loses his job, as he is fired without warning, which leaves him a mess since he’s 60 years old with two mortgages and a son who’s about to go off to college. This plot point resonates because any family these days with kids getting ready for college knows firsthand how insanely expensive it is, and how unfortunately where a person can go to college often has less to do with ability than with finances.
Michael rides the train every day into and out of New York City, and on this particular day, on his way home, he meets a strange woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him she’s a behaviorist who studies human behavior. They strike up a conversation and she throws a hypothetical situation his way: would he be willing to do something without knowing its consequences if he were paid $100,000. Of course, on this particular day, without a job, Michael is intrigued, but he’s hardly interested, until Joanna intimates that she’s not kiddng and tells him $25,000 is hidden in the bathroom, and the rest is his after he finishes the job, which is to locate one passenger and place a tracking device in the passenger’s bag.
After Joanna departs the train, Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he checks out the bathroom, where he finds $25,000 in cash. He decides to pocket the money and get off the train, but before he does another stranger warns him that he’s being watched and if he doesn’t do the job, they will kill his wife and son. Flabbergasted, Michael resists at first but he quickly learns that the powers that be are watching his every move and they will kill without hesitation if he doesn’t do what they want, which of course, begs the question: if they’re so all knowing and all powerful, why do they need Michael’s help in the first place? If they can kill at will without detection, why can’t they find one guy on a train? You’d think they’d easily be able to do this themselves.
Anyway, Michael finds he needs to use all of his former police detective skills to locate the unknown person, all the while trying both to learn why this person is being targeted and how he can outsmart Joanna and her cohorts.
As action thrillers go, THE COMMUTER is pretty gimmicky. With the exception of the initial plot point where Michael loses his job, I don’t think I believed any of it. The idea that these people would go to such lengths to get rid of one person, and by such lengths I mean killing multiple people, coercing a former cop Michael to do a nearly impossible job, and eventually working to derail an entire train, is very hard to swallow. One contracted hit man could have easily done the job without any fanfare.
Still, Liam Neeson is fun to watch, and I for one definitely enjoyed watching him. He still makes for a likable hero who’s easy to root for, and Neeson remains a strong enough actor to carry a movie like this. However, that being said, he’s certainly getting up there in years, and so it’s getting a bit more difficult to believe that he’s as physically unstoppable as his character is supposed to be here.
The film also boasts a veteran supporting cast, although no one really has a whole lot to do, other than Neeson. I’m also a huge Vera Farmiga fan, and she’s excellent in her brief screen time, but sadly, it is brief. And while she’s sort of the main villain, she’s never on screen enough to make much of an impact, which is too bad, because if she were, this would have been a much better movie.
Patrick Wilson plays Michael’s former police partner Alex Murphy, and Jonathan Banks, Mike on both BREAKING BAD (2009-2012) and its prequel BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2018), plays Michael’s friend and fellow train commuter Walt. And both Sam Neill and Elizabeth McGovern have thankless roles, Neil as police Captain Hawthorne and McGovern as Michael’s wife Karen.
THE COMMUTER was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the Liam Neeson films UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014), and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of which are better movies than THE COMMUTER. The film does open with a creative commuter montage that sets the tone that this is going to be a slickly made thriller, and it is, as there are some vicious fights on the train and an exciting train derailment climax that unfortunately doesn’t look all that real. In fact, the special effects of the crash look rather cartoonish.
Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle all wrote the screenplay which can be summed up with one word: contrived. As I said, little in this movie was believable, and the main plot point of Michael being coerced to find an unknown person or else his family will be killed plays exactly like the plot point of a bad movie rather than something that would really happen in real life. The dialogue is okay, with Neeson getting all the good lines, but even those aren’t really all that memorable.
If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’ll probably find THE COMMUTER fairly entertaining. I did. But other than Neeson, and Vera Farmiga’s brief screen time, there isn’t much else to like about THE COMMUTER. It’s really not that great a movie, and it’s certainly not a credible thriller.
Like its main character, Michael MacCauley, THE COMMUTER is a bit worn and weary, but while Michael has enough left in the tank to fight back, the same can’t be said for the movie.
What I think is even more sad is that Neeson is such a fine actor. It was “fun” watching the Taken franchise, but now he is becoming a caricature. I find it unfortunate that male actors are now experiencing what aging female actors have had to endure — the apparent loss of quality scripts from which to choose, typecasting (even if for men it is more macho-heroic and therefore “dignified”…it is still beneath their artistic capabilities), and a clear “warming down” of their career. With the ready-made Baby Boomer aging audience, why not inject some clear ok-to-get-older roles into the mix? At the edge of the Boom, I can easily reassure those coming after: it is OK to get older; some of us even LIKE the changes in our lives it brings…and men like Neeson just get sexier.