For about one hour, “The Commuter” is a slick, well-shot, claustrophobic Hitchcock-ish thriller which takes place, for the most part, aboard a departing Manhattan commuter train. It sets up an intriguing plot, a handful of interesting characters, and a clever ethical dilemma that is perfect for an everyman-type actor like Liam Neeson.
The second chunk of “The Commuter” is a loud, cliché filled action flick in which Neeson is snappin’ necks and cashin’ checks. The plot twists are so blatantly obvious that anyone surprised by them may have slept through the first hour as each character slowly morphs into typical action movie tropes.
Neeson plays cash-strapped Michael McCauley, an insurance salesman living in the New York ‘burbs. He and his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), live hand to mouth as they try to pay for their son’s Syracuse education. This habitual, fairly mundane life is explained via a very clever opening credits sequence that moves through time as this family does the same thing over and over across multiple seasons.
Micheal’s creature of habit lifestyle hits a brick wall when he learns he’s been fired. After a few beers with ex-partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), everyone discovers that Michael used to be a New York City police officer. Naturally, this becomes an extremely important plot device for what is to come.
When he boards the train to go home, Micheal is approached by a mysterious woman (the always cool Vera Farmiga) and presented with this quandry: if you find the person that doesn’t belong on your daily train and identify them, you’ll be paid $100,000. The rub is that he will never know what will happen to this person after he singles them out.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (marking his fourth collaboration with Neeson) treats “The Commuter” like a pot-boiler thriller, but simply cannot help himself. There are a handful of excellent close quarters fight sequences in which Neeson takes a few beatings, which makes perfect sense in an action-thriller such as this one. However, it’s as if Collet-Serra realized the point in which the plot begins to fall to pieces and he ramps up the action to fully preposterous levels in an effort to distract you from the eye-roll inducing mess.
It’s kind of a shame for “The Commuter” to devolve into a B-movie. It also has the undignified distinction of casting Sam Neill then only using him in two extremely lame scenes. It is quite cool to see Jonathan Banks step outside of the box and play a grumpy nice guy instead of his more common grumpy mean guy persona. The rest of the cast simply checks off the normal list of action movie stereotypes.
It’s hard to believe that the actor that portrayed Oskar Schindler in such a powerful and elegant way now plays roles best described as “Liam Neeson as Liam Neeson.” Neeson smirks and scowls and has shouted out the same dialogue (honestly, almost word for word) in what seems like a dozen movies. Is Neeson nothing more than a paycheck actor now, moving on from challenging work to low budget, low risk box office nonsense? It sadly seems this way.
It’s difficult to blame Neeson or Collet-Serra for how “The Commuter” turns out. It’s cursed with a fairly silly title to begin with and the script is all premise and mood, but clueless on how to tie it all together. This will be yet another in a long line of Neeson films that earns just enough cash for him to debate jumping into more straight-to-video type junk thus wasting his once thought of considerable skills.