Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle
Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, and Sam Neill
Reber’s Rating – B
When John McTiernan’s unforgettable Die Hard hit screens nearly thirty years ago, everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of that pie. Every movie studio attempted to take a regular everyday schmo and thrust him into an unwinnable situation. The hero had to gaze steely into the camera. He couldn’t have muscles atop of muscles like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Most importantly, the quips had to be a mile a minute, not necessarily a laugh riot but enough to keep audiences captivated in the film. For years Hollywood executives – and the dutiful film reviewers who watched said actioneers – the saying used to be “Die Hard on (insert location).” Plane, train, subway, you name, studios attempted the scenario. (And who could forget that two year phase of having snakes in every sort of form of transportation utilized by man too?)
Now, the same principle exists all over again. Though, remove the basic plot and replace that with an actor – and if you guessed Liam Neeson, congratulations, go grab yourself a cookie. He has a particular set of skills. He will find you. And he will kill you. Somehow though, despite his desire to abandon the genre (which he won’t be doing just yet), Neeson keeps on chipping away at being a middle-aged everyman action star. For a while there I felt like his movies were becoming more along the lines of “Taken on a (insert location).” And Liam Neeson just can’t travel in peace, can he?
But The Commuter is a whole different sort of Neeson ride, a white-knuckle Hitchcockian thriller that keeps you stumped in a who-can-you-trust roller-coaster as one man who just wants to get home and, yet, finds himself doing what is noble to undermine a conspiracy. Sure, the story’s a bit ham-fisted, but what January film sets out to win an Oscar? Surely not the latest from French director Jaume Collet-Serra, teaming with Liam Neeson for the fourth time to take audiences on a wild trip outside routine theatrics. Listen, January was previously seen as a dumping ground but, in recent years, the first month of the calendar year has become more a time to drop rousing surprises in theaters. The Commuter is scripted by two newcomers (Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi) that have not a single big screen credit to their resumes but thankfully Ryan Engle, who previously collaborated with Neeson and Collet-Serra on Non-Stop, spruced up the rough draft. If you were able to disconnect from reality when watching Non-Stop – well, anyone who can switch off their brain for a popcorn feature – you’ll have no problem here.
Neeson this time actually plays his role straight. He’s not a retired CIA operative overprotective of his daughter. He sure isn’t an air-marshal on a flight across the Atlantic. And no, Neeson isn’t a hard-nosed hitman torn between his Mafia boss or his own son. This time Neeson’s Michael McCauley is, of all the professions known to man, a life insurance salesman. He awakes at the same time each morning, always to the same cheery radio news broadcast but rarely in the same mood. His son Daniel is headed off to Syracuse in the fall, challenging his dad to read the same literature novels as homework. He loves his wife Karen but, like any relationship, sometimes the arguments are as real as the love the couple share for each other. McCauley takes the same train southward into Manhattan each day, with the same commuters interacting among themselves on the daily. They also retreat home together to, bemoaning about their grind. But on one particular afternoon, his two mortgages and a tuition payment to Syracuse nipping at his heels, a situation is presented before McCauley – a hypothetical that becomes reality.
If you had the chance to save one person on a train, someone who was not a regular passenger and was truly a stranger on the train, would you take the chance? And, if for your cooperation in solving the mystery of the passenger, your prize were to be a sizable chunk of change to pay off your worries – well, would you take the money? Or would you go home to your idyllic life, never giving a stray thought to what could have been?
Ladies and gents, what may seem like your average straight-to-DVD thriller is far removed from your lowered expectations. Sure, the trailers for The Commuter were a bit tame, almost carbon copies of other movies that have floated in Hollywood for years. I admittedly saw the first theatrical trailer and cried foul, convicted that the entire film was spoiled in the two-and-a-half-minute trailer. Instead, as I kicked up the reclining seat in the theater, I was proven wrong across the next 94 minutes. The trailer presents a film that feels more explosive than potboiler, skirting character development just to parade set piece after set piece. Collet-Serra’s film actually moves more in real time, save for the introduction and finale, McCauley up against the wall – or confined to a jittery subway train, people walled up around him in each car – as he tries to solve the mystery. Of course McCauley opts to take the money. Any person would take that money if they were in a pinch.
However, how McCauley has to unravel the plot is what elevates this film over being generic. You can try to deduce the identity of the innocent stranger on the MTA train northward. There’s a slew of people to choose from, many of which McCauley is instantly suspicious of in terms of looking or acting out of place. And, like a cat chasing the red dot from a laser pointer across a living room, just when you think you’ve solved the enigma, you’re back to the beginning of the race, another red herring dropped in your lap. In true Hitchcock fashion, you’re as much in the dark as the unassuming Michael McCauley. Oh, there’s absolutely a reason why he’s chosen out of the crowded flock of subway folk but the fact you are as clueless as a 60-year-old insurance salesman trying to make sense out of the perplexity before him works damn well. You can think you can get a step ahead of our protagonist, but you won’t be. You’re given up until the last possible second to figure out what will happen next. Then, the carpet’s yanked from beneath your feet and you’re back to covering the summation of clues all over again, trying to discover what you missed the first go-round.
Not does Collet-Serra’s finely-layered thriller work on nearly every layer, but Neeson doesn’t seem to just be going through the motions. (I remember Taken 3. I won’t forget either.) Neeson doesn’t try to approach the seasoned salesman as a brilliant gumshoe. Rather, Neeson actually takes a step back from his gruff roles of the past and actually feels quite relatable to an ordinary passerby. After all, knowing that your family is under watch pending your success – or failure – would be enough to make one leap out of their skin and try to approach a dilemma a bit erratically. McCauley has to take a step back, his emotions running amok, the smell of money fresh under his nose but his senses flared with panic. There’s a point that McCauley, reviewing the events of the last hour, begins to chuckle at the absolute absurdity of his predicament. He’s done not a damn thing to anyone in life to seek out an complete newcomer who’s targeted for murder. And wouldn’t we do the exact same thing? Laugh because of the nonsense surrounding your decisions? While Neeson has been one of the Hollywood’s most ranging actors – Darkman to Schindler’s List to Love Actually to Taken, c’mon now – his latest could end up being one of his more underappreciated roles, all because The Commuter had the misfortune of a January release date. Believe me when I say, if not for Neeson accepting the mantle of Michael McCauley, then The Commuter wouldn’t have the same punch to its fireworks.
Of course, fireworks come from more than just explosions and fire. The Commuter is more of an old-school mystery movie, the Everyman trying to solve a big mystery at the same pace as the viewer, but there are several impressive moments of true thrills. Collet-Serra has already proven his talents as a director, his knack for framing a scene or playing with the angles to create some truly visual treats onscreen. And not many directors could keep audiences engrossed for an hour-and-a-quarter while most of the narrative unfolding in the limitations of a speeding subway train. Collet-Serra knows just how to curve the lens around the corners, keeping his focus on the players before him and the action unfolding at every moment, one minute following McCauley as he evades officers to a bare-knuckle brawl, stitched together to appear as a one-take, the tight editing of Nicolas De Toth taking over to hold your suspense. And yes, The Commuter is far from a tentpole blockbuster. There’s a heavy reliance on CG backgrounds but, impressively enough, the cheapened blue screen around the train isn’t jarring at all, since your eyes are keenly surveying the inside of the cars for any and all clues.
Though, if just one complaint, The Commuter does lack mightily in one facet – the overall plot. Sure, Ryan Engle has done a commendable job to save most of the film from being average. Of course, the more obvious gotcha moments are perhaps a bit too easy to figure out. Within the first ten minutes you’ve already got a fairly certain deduction on who is behind McCauley’s choice. On why the unfamiliar face is on that particular train. Who exactly can be trusted. Hell, you just may even guess the ending. While the bookends are a bit sluggish, though rife with sharp performances from the likes of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – oh, and Sam Neill, he can spin any role into gold with his charm – the middle hour aboard the train is what makes The Commuter stand out from its brethren. I guess the ability to really deceive audiences and throw their sensibilities into the wind isn’t as easy to accomplish in 2018 anymore, not with the staggering amount of films released per year. Still, buoyed by Neeson’s against-type performance, The Commuter is a warm welcome to kick off 2018 in fifth gear, a thinking man’s movie swaddled with fast-paced thrills. Collet-Serra’s latest may not reinvent the wheel but will damn sure provide a much-needed distraction from the winter weather. The Commuter is definitely one case where the trailer is misleading for the right reasons and where trusting your gut feeling on your next theatrical experience is worthwhile as the credits roll.