UK Release Date: 19th January 2018
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, Florence Pugh, Sam Neill
Synopsis: Moments after he is sacked from his job, an insurance salesman boards his usual commuter train, only to be presented with a baffling proposition that quickly becomes a deadly threat.
There aren’t many 65-year-old men who can hold their own in a movie fight quite like Liam Neeson. The Irishman has punched, kicked and pistol-whipped his way through a decade-long action career since Taken that has perhaps come to the surface most prominently in his collaborations with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. Four years after Collet-Serra gave the world Action Neeson on a plane in Non-Stop, he has now delivered Action Neeson on a train with The Commuter. Presumably, Action Neeson in an automobile is just around the corner. Speed remake, anyone?
The Commuter is further proof of the genius alchemy that exists between Neeson and Collet-Serra. The film delivers another of the star’s recent ordinary-man-with-a-past characters in the shape of cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley. Collet-Serra introduces us to Michael via a nicely-realised montage that showcases the monotony of his daily routine, which involves boarding the same train and meeting the same passengers. His decade of tenure at the insurance company seemingly means nothing to his capitalist meanie of a boss, who bins him without a second thought.
After pausing for a drink with cop buddy Murph (Patrick Wilson), Michael boards his usual train and is met by a strange woman (Vera Farmiga). She poses a challenge to Michael, wrapped up in psycho-babble. There is someone on this train who doesn’t belong there and Michael, who is familiar with every passenger, can find them. If he is successful, he will be given a big wad of cash. If he refuses, it quickly transpires that there will be grave consequences.
The Commuter does a stellar job of weaving its premise into a semi-plausible narrative structure. Neeson’s involvement in the story is achieved through believable means and it escalates in compelling fashion as those pulling the strings always appear to be several steps ahead. The confined atmosphere of the moving train adds a sense of claustrophobia to the film, enhanced by Neeson’s bulk that appears to fill an entire carriage. It’s this lack of space that gives an extra frisson to the fight sequences, which are brutal and hard-hitting, with real jeopardy as Collet-Serra manages to use every inch of the inside and outside of the train.
The need to find and identify the rogue passenger by the end of the line also creates an inherent ticking clock structure. The film smartly unfolds in almost real-time, with Collet-Serra’s trademark kinetic direction and roving camera keeping the story moving, even as Neeson pauses in episodic fashion to interact with his fellow passengers, occasionally passing through the bizarre purgatory of an abandoned carriage where the air conditioning has blown.
Collet-Serra finds considerable tension in the tightly-written script and sketches out neat introductions for the passengers around Neeson, played by interesting performers including Jonathan Banks and Florence Pugh. In a smart evocation of reality, there’s a sense that all of these people are holding something back and that even the regular passengers aren’t as familiar to Michael as he thinks they are. It’s certainly intriguing enough that I gave the people around me on my train home a second glance.
Unfortunately, it’s in the third act that the film – with apologies in advance for this pun – comes off the rails entirely. The revelations mount up in increasingly ludicrous fashion and, eventually, The Commuter‘s house of cards collapses under the weight of its own silliness, with everyone confined to one carriage for a Poirot-like final interrogation. There’s enough spectacle to paper over the cracks and Neeson remains an absurdly watchable action presence but, like no train trip ever taken, the journey is more enjoyable than the destination.
Pop or Poop?
Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson continue to craft a terrific director-star partnership with The Commuter, which might not reach the literal heights of Non-Stop, but utilises its unique atmosphere to create a tense thriller with a solid mystery premise. The eventual resolution of the conspiracy is over-written and hopelessly messy, but there’s more than enough head-smashing action and white-knuckle tension to keep the thing ticking over until it reaches the end of the line.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.