The Commuter | Jaume Collet-Serra | January 12, 2018
I missed out on the aging Irish actor-turned-low-budget-action-star train (pardon the pun). I’m more than aware of the handful of films (the Taken trilogy, The Grey, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night), but I’ve had little to no desire to see any of them. The Commuter is just the latest car to be hitched to the train that is the latter half of Liam Neeson’s acting career, which seems to be half tongue-in-cheek/meta cameos and half tropey genre films (maybe with the exception of A Monster Calls and Silence).
Life has become rote for Irish-New Yorker ex-cop turned financially-strapped insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson). He wakes at 6 AM to the news of the day on 1010 WINS, preps for work, talks book recommendations with his soon-to-be college-bound son Danny (Game of Thrones‘ Dean-Charles Chapman a.k.a. Thommen), drives with his realtor wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) to the Tarrytown Metro-North station, and sees the familiar faces on the way in and home – including Walt (Jonathan Banks).
One August afternoon, he’s unceremoniously fired after 10 years on the job with only a medical severance package, and commiserates over drinks with former cop partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) before catching his usual 6:25 PM train home. Michael is approached a stop or two in by the inquiring Joanna (Vera Farmiga) with a hypothetical proposal: find an out-of-place passenger, tag their bag with a GPS tracker, don’t call for help or get off the train, and get $100K in 2 uneven installments ($25K to accept and $75K after). The hypothetical turns real (and deadly) all too quickly as he finds and takes the $25K, tries to signal for help, and sees his fellow commuters start to become cannon fodder and his family put in peril, so he’s forced to put his cop skills to use finding the passenger, figuring out the conspiracy that’s afoot, and saving his family.
As a New York metro area straphanger, the execution of The Commuter‘s plot and the conspiracy (which you can probably deduce from similar genre tropes) is somewhat farfetched. I wouldn’t call it laughable, considering the derailment sequence in the third act (it’s not a spoiler; it’s in the trailers) and the recurring local train derailments and related issues in recent years (Metro-North, Metro-North again, NJ Transit). What I might consider laughable are the Metro-North inconsistencies. The Hudson line doesn’t quite run as it’s shown to in the film – there are no stops between Grand Central and Yankee Stadium; Cold Spring isn’t the end of the train line (Poughkeepsie is); and the trains (regardless of whether they’re peak commuter trains or not) don’t tend to skip regular stops along the line. Just see the schedule for yourself!
But apart from the real-world issues with The Commuter, it appears messy on a technical level. The dialogue, from first-time writers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi and returning Collet-Serra collaborator Ryan Engle, is laughably tropey, and the characters are relatively flat. Farmiga’s Joanna is an enigma, the MacCauley family has few defining characteristics, and the fellow train passenger tropes include the douchey Goldman-Sach’s employee (Shazad Latif) who Michael flips off, the Columbia student in a troubled relationship (Florence Pugh, who was in last year’s festival/indie-circuit release Lady Macbeth), and the nurse in the middle of a possible breakup (Clara Lago). Apart from that, the choppy opening credits and routine montage is a jarring start to a film that uses an awful lot of tight handheld shots and the use of CG-assisted zooms and tracking shots, even in the few fight scenes, to disorienting effect. How cinematographer Paul Cameron, Collet-Serra, and editor Nicholas De Toth shoot, stage, and edit a good portion of the film do The Commuter a disservice to someone who likes seeing fights executed clearly and practically, rather than blurry quick cuts with CG assists.
To say that The Commuter is the worst train ride in a while is to forget last year’s unnecessary Murder on the Orient Express remake. It’s not the worst, but it’s not the best. It’s mildly engaging plot-wise (if you don’t think about it too hard), has a little Hitchcock nod or two (a dolly-zoom and a slight Strangers on a Train vibe), and has Liam Neeson in action-mode. If you can stomach that in a January release, you’ll be fine. Just be prepared for one hellish and unrealistic commute.