Liam Neeson is all Aboard the new Action-Suspense Train Ride Called The Commuter.
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra/2017
ERIK YATES: If a film is released in January that historically means that it isn’t considered a very strong film worthy of a more prominent release date held for summer blockbusters, or even possible award contenders. This, of course, does not include many end-year releases that get a limited December run to qualify for the Academy Awards before opening wide in January. For Liam Neeson’s latest film, The Commuter, this January release is meant as more of a testament to the former example. However, it is a Liam Neeson film, and given that this is his third collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, including 2011’s Unknown, and 2015’s Run All Night, this is starting to become a whole new category of film release. It certainly fits into being a film release that simply looks to do a bit of counterprogramming and find a release date at a time when they think they can maximize box office draw and avoid major competition in the process rather than slug it out during the summer months, for example.
For the 65-year- old Liam Neeson, he has had a sort of late-career turn as an action star that really began in 2008 in the film Taken. Previously, he was better known for dramas such as Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, Silence, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, and Michael Collins, with an occasional nod to action with Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, Darkman, or even his involvement with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. He has even done some considerable voice work as Aslan in the Chronicle of Narnia series, and in When a Monster Calls. While he has indicated that his action days may be wrapping up, The Commuter shows that Liam Neeson can still provide a fun ride of a film, even in the simplest of plots. Many more of these aging action-filled films, however, and Neeson will be qualified as a bona fide action star that is eligible for joining Stallone’s rumored 4th entry in the upcoming The Expendables 4.
The Commuter does exactly what it sets out to do and that is entertain. On that front, it more than accomplishes its goals. Throw in a great cast that includes The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, along with Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks, Downtown Abby’s Elizabeth McGovern, and Jurassic Park and Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Sam Neill, and you will leave the theater having enjoyed the film. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just don’t try to look too closely at the thin narrative and all will be fine.
JEFFREY KNIGHT: Happily, what narrative The Commuter does have is a fun homage to the action films of the late 80’s, early 90’s. A regular guy, this time Liam Neeson’s ex-cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley, is trapped in a confined space by criminal masterminds who have planned for every contingency. The only way out, it seems, is to play the bad guy’s game- but Liam Neeson isn’t a man who plays by the rules!
As the film begins Michael MacCauley isn’t having a very good day. He’s abruptly fired from his job at the firm he’s worked at for the past 10 years (a very effective opening montage shows him getting up and heading off to work day after day). While he’s on the train home, wondering what he’s going to tell his wife, MacCauley is approached by a strange woman who introduces herself as Joanna (Vera Farmiga). Joanna poses a ‘hypothetical’ question to MacCauley. If he could do one little thing to a fellow passenger on the train, an act which would have no consequences for him other than a sizeable cash reward, would he do it? Considering he just lost his job and he has one son about to head off to college, MacCauley is naturally tempted.
But one doesn’t need to be an ex-cop to realize that something fishy is afoot. When MacCauley begins to realize what he’s gotten himself into, people begin to die. Soon enough, he discovers his family is in danger from the unseen, yet all-knowing villains, and MacCauley has to puzzle out what is really going on before anyone else gets killed.
The Commuter is a throwback to the sorts of action films that become ubiquitous in the wake of Die Hard. Elements of the plot call the movie Speed to mind. Action sequences remind one of The Fugitive and Air Force One. There’s even a character named Alex Murphy, a reference to the human identity of Robocop. Individual shots seem like a direct lift from something John McTiernan might have done. The movie missed a bet by not naming their FBI agents Johnson.
ERIK YATES: I agree with the comparison to Speed, and Die Hard, and Air Force One, etc. (And good pick up on the Robocop reference), though I wouldn’t elevate it personally to being as memorable or iconic. In terms of structure and intent, absolutely. I wish that the film took the time to develop more of Vera Farmiga’s character as she was extremely interesting but seemed to be gone from the screen just as quickly as she appeared. Most of this film was phoned in for her…..literally! She has in her a great opportunity to be a “Hans Gruber-esque” villain in the future based on her limited performance here, and I am asking for studios everywhere to find a project that will allow that to happen. I also wish that we could have seen her interact on-screen with Patrick Wilson as both Conjuring films have shown that those two have great chemistry together.
So, while I enjoyed the ride, and the film certainly entertained, I feel like the great cast that was assembled really wasn’t utilized as fully as they should have been. Jonathan Banks, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Sam Neill collectively were underused, while the director did a good job integrating the many characters on the train that Michael MacCauley interacts with on a daily basis the last 10 years he has been commuting. This is clearly Liam Neeson’s show, so I’m thinking the director recruited the bigger names to give the simple-plotted film more gravitas, knowing all along that it was going to be Neeson racing against the clock. Therefore, he did not need to fully utilize the bigger names, but it would have been nice to develop their characters more into the narrative. The suspense based on the internal clock of the film, namely to accomplish a task by a certain train stop, keeps the adrenaline high-enough to look past the film’s shortcomings and just enjoy what its trying to be.
JEFFREY KNIGHT: The film’s runtime is 109 minutes, so once this train get started, it doesn’t want to slow down for non-essentials- basically if Liam Neeson doesn’t learn it, the audience doesn’t learn it either. Whatever the bad guys really want, and who they really are is only important as to how the answers affect Liam Neeson. As Erik said, it’s his show through and through. If we didn’t buy MacCauley’s desperation at his financial situation, his confusion and fear as he realizes what he has gotten himself into, and his ability to kick ass and be oh-so-clever when needed, the film just falls apart. There isn’t anything else there. Happily, Neeson’s more than capable of being up to the task.
A movie like this also lives and dies on its action set-pieces. For the most part, The Commuter is more of a tense thriller than a straight-up action movie. There are two big moments, however. The first is a fist fight about halfway through. Constructed so as to seem to be one long take (pretty certain digital trickery was employed here), the sequence goes right up to the top but doesn’t quite go over it. The second, which takes us into the third act, goes right on over, loops around, and goes over the top again. It’s almost jaw-dropping in its audacity in a movie that has had little in the way of overt fireworks up to this point. The only thing that keeps it from being 100% successful are the obvious seams in the digital effects work.
All-in-all Erik and I had a good time with The Commuter. While I’m certain neither of us will remember much about it in another 5 months or so, the movie is a well-crafted thriller with a solid performance by Liam Neeson at its center. Oh, and Vera Farmiga and Sam Neill are in it too.