Film Review: The Commuter

by Carrie Kahn on January 12, 2018

Rough commute takes on a whole new meaning in fun Neeson-helmed thrill ride

Commuter Michael (Liam Neeson, r.) tries to save his fellow train passengers. 

If you are suffering from post-holiday malaise and need a pick-me-up, you could do worse than seeing the new Liam Neeson action flick The Commuter. Unlike the usual forgettable fare that typically inhabits the January cinematic wasteland, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s new film offers the sort of hold-your-breath thrills that you would expect from the same director who pitted Blake Lively against a shark in 2016’s The Shallows and who collaborated with Neeson back in 2014 on Non-Stop.

Whereas Non-Stop found Neeson’s character facing danger as an air marshal, here Collet-Serra, his Non-Stop screenwriter Ryan Engle (and two other first time writers, Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi) keep Neeson on the ground, moving the action from a plane to a train. Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a transplanted Irishman who, as the picture starts, is unceremoniously laid off from his insurance sales job of ten years; he’s only got five years until retirement, and money is tight, with a teenage son about to head off to college. Depressed and uncertain about his future, Michael boards his daily commuter train from New York’s Grand Central Station to his home in Tarrytown, and that’s when the action kicks in.

Michael (Liam Neeson) meets a chatty woman (Vera Farmiga) on his daily commute.

From that moment on, the picture unfolds in real time, as Michael is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a mysterious woman who asks him to do a favor that she says will be of no consequence to him, and for which he’ll be paid $100,000 if he successfully completes the task. All he has to do is find a person who “doesn’t belong” (i.e., is not a regular daily commuter) before that person exits at the Cold Spring stop, and put a GPS tracker on that person’s bag, which, Joanna tells Michael, contains something stolen. Michael, of course, just happens to be an ex-cop as well as an insurance agent; his policeman’s instincts make him wary, but his dire financial circumstances make him the perfect mark… is it a coincidence that Joanna has picked him?

That question and many more remain unanswered as narrative elements unspool that are head-scratchingly unrealistic and nonsensical (the most glaring of which just may be that, at one point, the train passengers have enough newspapers among them to cover the windows of an entire train car; does Collet-Serra not realize that every commuter these days has long since foregone a newspaper for a smart phone?). But no matter — you don’t come to a film like this one for logic. You come for pulse-pounding excitement, and Collet-Serra serves that up in spades, as Michael takes on the challenge, and soon realizes that he’s become involved in a nefarious criminal conspiracy that will endanger him, his family, and the other innocent commuters on the train. The picture is helped immensely, of course, by the fact that Neeson is in full-on, bad ass Taken mode here; nobody is better than Neeson at playing stressed out and angry and ready to do whatever it takes to save himself, his family, and, we trust, all of humanity, if need be.

Captain Hawthorne (Sam Neill) tries to diffuse a dangerous situation.

The screenplay borrows liberally from other train movies; everything from Runaway Train to The Taking of Pelham 123 to Murder on the Orient Express is unabashedly cribbed here, and there is a particularly lazy twist that you’ll see coming a mile away. But again, if you don’t overthink the often unoriginal story aspects and roll on down the track with Michael, you’ll find yourself totally engaged and holding your breath as some of the more well-choreographed action scenes play out. This movie isn’t meant to be Oscar bait; those contenders were in the can in December, and now it’s time for something fun to see us through the winter chill. The Commuter serves that purpose just fine, which is really all we can ask of a decently executed Liam Neeson action picture. And I’ll tell you what: if you are a regular BART or CalTrain rider, after seeing this film, you may never look at your fellow passengers quite the same way again.

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The Commuter opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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