IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Insurance salesman and ex-cop Michael McCauley Blasi barely makes ends meet to support his family. One day, he loses his job. His commute back home is disrupted by the enigmatic stranger Joanna, who sits opposite him on the Metro-North train and makes him an offer: identify the person who doesn’t belong on the train, plant a tracking device on him, and get $100,000 in return. She tells him there is a $25,000 upfront payment in the bathroom. When Michael goes to check there, he can’t believe it but yes, there’s the money. He decides to take it. It’s not long before strange things start to happen….
I had to laugh the other day when Liam Neeson said that he’s getting too old for action movies, as he’s said this several times before yet still keeps churning them out, and still somehow convinces. You pretty much what you’re going to get with one of these flicks, and as long as the film isn’t the abominable Taken 3 you’re therefore unlikely to be particularly disappointed. Director Jaume Collet-Serra [also responsible for the surprise hit The Shallows and the much underrated Orphan] and Neeson’s previous three collaborations The Unknown, Run All Night and Non Stop were all enjoyable ‘B’ level thrillers with worthy attempts at good, if unbelievable, storylines, and The Commuter, which I’d imagine many critics are already calling Non Stop on a train [apparently the original screenplay by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi was rewritten by Ryan Engle to make it more like Non Stop], continues the trend. Like some of Neeson’s other recent efforts it’s not a full blown action thriller – in fact it’s more of a mystery which turns into a full blown action movie in its final quarter – and the plot really doesn’t bare scrutinising whatsoever, but it’s never less than entertaining and Neeson gives one of his best performances as himself [or at least his screen personality]. And – well – I’m a sucker for films set on a train.
Michael’s normal life is shown in some awkwardly cut together short segments during the opening credits, though it’s nice to see Elisabeth McGovern in a rare movie role these days. I’m not sure that Michael needed to be an ex-cop – sure, it feeds a little bit into the story at times but it could have easily been eliminated. It slightly weakens the ‘everyman’ status of the character. Of course having him fired from his job isn’t enough: his son needs college tuition, he and his wife have multiple mortgages on their house, and he’s only a few years from retirement with very little money put away. Michael – hang on, let’s just call him Liam as he’s the same as he usually is in these movies – Liam goes for a drink with his ex-partner Detective Alex Murphy, a scene which by the way is hideously shot with a very shaky camera for no discernable reason [especially when the rest of the film aside from some of the action is steady], and sees a news story on the TV about a city planner who supposedly jumped to his death. Could this be important? Ummm I wonder. On the train ride home, Liam has his phone stolen, then meets Joanna. Now Vera Farmiga is second billed in the credits, but she’s actually barely in the film, her character often sending messengers to do her job, something that smacks of false advertising. Mind you, neither Sam Neill or Patrick Wilson are in it much either, and Farmiga plays her mysterious character well enough that only after the film had finished did I realise probably its biggest plot hole. This is a person who wields considerable power and can, in her own words, “get to anyone, everywhere”, so why doesn’t just do this job herself remains a mystery.
Anyway, Liam is reluctant to do what she’s asking of him despite finding $25,000, but then he learns that his wife and kids are in danger. He begins to search the train to find this person named Prynne who is apparently carrying vital information. Could this have something to do with the suicide and was it really a suicide? And are there bad guys on the train, watching his every move? Things get even worse when a fellow commuter he knows really well is pushed in front of a bus after he writes on his newspaper that he should call the police. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of Murder On The Orient Express, though considerably faster paced, as Liam probes the various strangers on the train who include a taciturn teenager engaged in her own illegal activities, and an arrogant Wall Street banker who wishes he’d never left Goldman Sachs, a character who best represents the screenplay’s mostly vague aspirations for social/political commentary which never really go anywhere. The passengers are mostly thinly drawn stereotypes but, unless you really do require constant action, it’s all quite riveting and certainly kept me guessing, while Liam seems to make so many mistakes you really are led to wonder if he should just shut up and do what he’s told.
The plot gets increadingly elaborate, not to mention increasingly tenuously tied together, and eventually we get an action filled final act with – yes – a runaway train [I didn’t think it was worth classing this as a spoiler]. Liam gets to do three fight sequences, one of them playing out in what looks like a single take as it takes place over an entire carriage with a gun, an axe, a guitar and seat cushions used as weapons, though it looked to me like the set was digitally enlarged in a few shots and not very well, while as usual I could have done with the camera being a bit more still. Still, there’s some effort to make these bits realistic, Liam being certainly no expert martial artist here, though he still possesses a very particular set of skills as he’s able to do things like jump from one moving train carriage to another and, in perhaps the film’s tensest moment which takes place much earlier, roll out from under a moving train. It’s odd though how the film seems to climax with its most spectacular moment, a moment that virtually replays the first Mission Impossible’s silliest bit, but then has another 20 minutes to go, a 20 minutes which relies largely on a surprise plot twist [though sadly I guessed it much earlier and I’m usually not very good at spotting this kind of thing] and which fails to have much of the suspense that was so prevalent earlier.
Some of the pieces fall into place in a ridiculously easy manner and there are some important details that are never explained, as if the producers are hoping that the box offfice receipts will be enough for a sequel. For example, it’s never shown or explained how Joanna has eyes on everything that Liam does. The specific nature of the film’s ‘mcguffin’ is never revealed – even Alfred Hitchcock’s movies would have a stab at telling the viewer what it is that everyone’s chasing after, even if it was essentially meaningless. And it’s frankly hilarious that commuters fail to notice rounds being fired, vicious brawls, and someone being thrown out of a window. Collet-Serra, who seems to increasingly like setting his films in confined or solitary spaces, and cinematographer Paul Cameron, aided by the visual effects team, give us several show-offy shots like an early one which takes us through the train backwards, going through doors and eventually out of the back of the train. The CGI bits in these moments are usually noticeable but I’ve seen far worse. And you’ve got to like any film that gives us an “I am Spartacus” moment, however out of place it may seem, though by this time the proceedings have got so ridiculous you almost feel that anything can happen.
Amazingly the tone of the piece manages to be pretty serious [aside from one crowd pleasing jab at Goldman Sachs], though of course it’s really down to Neeson, who spends much of the time pacing really fast up and down the train, to try to bring some measure of gravitas and be the film’s emotional centre. He tries very hard, though of course he could play the part of a man trying to get his life back together in his sleep. I’m sure that some of his older fans consider him to be slumming it with these films and wasting his talents, but he still gives good value, and for me it’ll be a sad day when he finally does decide to stop rushing around and kicking butt and begin to act his age. Fast, foolish, and I guess in the end forgettable, The Commuter is probably being disliked by most critics, but it really is a pretty good time at the pictures and often manages the difficult task of being quite clever and pretty stupid at the same time – which is some feat. The first guilty pleasure of the year.