Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Andy Nyman, Rolland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for All the Ways That Liam Neeson Can Improvise on a Train to Dispatch His Opponents
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Much of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken filmography has been readily reduced to “Taken on a [blank]” or “Taken, but this time they steal his [blank].” This is especially true in his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. 2011’s Unknown checked in as “Taken, but this time they steal his identity,” while 2014’s Non-Stop was essentially “Taken on a plane.” Their latest teamup, The Commuter, may at first glance be their “Taken on a train,” but a more accurate pitch would be: “take the government and law enforcement corruption elements of something like Chinatown, compress them into the hijacked train scene of The French Connection, and stretch out to feature length.”
Insurance salesman and former cop Michael McCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off, only a few years before retirement, when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition during his ride home along the Hudson on the Metro-North train: would he be willing to do one little thing that would affect someone he doesn’t know and receive a significant reward in return? This is presented as a hypothetical, but it soon becomes very real when he discovers a hidden bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This is an effectively simple premise insofar as it immediately kicks the narrative into high gear, but it is simultaneously confounding with how many details it leaves under wraps.
Ultimately, that it is to the audience’s benefit, as we are strung along with just enough info to want to sniff out what is going on. All Michael has to go on is the stop that this person is getting off and the fact that he or she does not normally ride this train. Collet-Serra specializes in populating his cast with a full crew of conceivably suspicious characters. Could it be this mystery person be the tattooed girl with a bag full of fake IDs? That certainly raises alarms. But for all we and Michael know, the nurse stuck in an emotional texting session is just as much of a suspect.
The Commuter sort of fits in the vein of the “decent man fights back against a rigged system” genre, but really, that is only the narrative that has been forced upon Michael. Yes, he has been unfairly fired. True, he did lose all his savings thanks to the recent market crash (and he makes sure to flip off the vain Goldman Sachs broker on the train). But the reward dangled in front of him appeals to his selfish motives and does not actually give him an opportunity to stick up for the little guy. Besides, he is driven more by the threats against his wife and son and his own law enforcement instincts for uncovering the truth. It is implied that this criminal enterprise is so insidious and far-reaching it they could set up any patsies they want and frame them for any motivation
As the vast conspiracy begins to be revealed, we are left to confront the question of plausibility. But in a thriller like this, verisimilitude matters less than following the own theoretical rules of this extreme situation. That is to say, The Commuter needs to be at least as relentlessly entertaining as it is ridiculous. And on that score, given the director, star, and location, it is unsurprisingly adroit. The film’s logical internal consistency, though, may be worth investigating a little more deeply, as the passengers at the mercy of Michael’s mission may come to trust him – a man who has been getting into fights and throwing people out windows – more quickly than is conceivable. A late-stage Spartacus homage is quite amusing, though indicative of that questionable trust. But in a profoundly puzzling situation with life-or-death stakes like this one, it only makes sense to go along for the ride.
The Commuter is Recommended If You Like: Non-Stop, Face/Off, The French Connection
Grade: 4 out of 5 Train Defenestrations