It’s a new year, so you know what that means: yet another first-quarter mid-budget action film starring Liam Neeson is just around the corner. While the 65-year-old has made a cottage industry of Bourne-style potboilers, his collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Unknown, Run All Night) are arguably his most successful. Cue The Commuter, a breezy, exciting whodunit that’s also just the latest example of just how successful the Serra-Neeson collaboration can be.
Just like Non-Stop, The Commuter contrives a situation in which Neeson must solve a mystery on a mode of mass transit, with lives at stake. Here he plays Michael MacCauley, a former NYPD officer turned insurance salesman who lives a happy, seemingly prosperous life in the suburbs with his wife and teenage son. One day, he’s unceremoniously laid off, a painful speed bump for a retirement-aged man with mountains of debt and a college-bound kid.
However, serendipity arrives on his commute home, in the form of mysterious fixer Joanna (Vera Farmiga). “There’s someone on this train who doesn’t belong,” she says, and is willing to pay him $100,000 in cash if he finds them and plants a tracker in their bag before they get off at Cold Spring. Puzzled, Neeson reluctantly accepts the offer and takes the down payment, and that’s when the bodies start to drop. Threatened with the lives of his family, MacCauley must find this unidentified passenger before time runs out, or the tide of suspicion turns to him.
For the film’s first half, The Commuter is a nicely tamped-down antidote to the excesses we usually associate with the Taken school of Liam Neeson actioner. MacCauley may be a New York cop, but his particular set of skills this time around are a Columbo-esque resourcefulness and an innate knowledge of the regulars with whom he commutes every day (including Jonathan Banks as his gruff, sports-loving bestie).
As in all his other Collet-Serra efforts, Neeson is perfect for this kind of role, his signature intensity making his moments of levity and genuine charm incredibly disarming. Ever the working-class hero, Neeson delights in lifting the middle finger to a snooty Goldman Sachs broker after finishing a tense conversation: “Oh, and on behalf of the American working class, fuck you!” He’s clearly established himself as Harrison Ford, If He Could Still Punch (Neeson spends most of the movie shouting variations on “My wife! My son!”), but he’s also clearly having a blast running around and playing a gun-toting Hercule Poirot.
Speaking of Poirot, one of The Commuter’s few flaws is that it doesn’t quite give its supporting cast enough to do. Farmiga, the film’s ostensible villain, shows up for one scene and then becomes a voice on the phone as she barks instructions at Neeson. The train’s occupants, all either suspects or train regulars puzzled by MacCauley’s increasingly erratic behavior, get a few moments to shine here and there when they’re on our hero’s radar (including Banks’ equally grizzled commute buddy and Andy Nyman’s sleazy card shark), but are mostly just red herrings for Neeson’s search.
Collet-Serra is an old hand at this type of tightly-focused genre thriller, and he delights in dropping little touches of Hitchcockian flair throughout the film. Right from the get, Collet-Serra introduces us to Neeson’s daily routine with a deviously smart opening montage of several mornings intercut together – it’s the kind of economical character/exposition work that comes naturally to him. Collet-Serra’s active camera confidently swoops in and out of windows and through aisles as MacCauley makes his way through the train; at one point, it even peeks through punchcard holes as Neeson stalks the aisles, sizing up passengers getting off at his target’s destination. As with The Shallows, Collet-Serra seems to work best within the geographical limitations of a single setting, making for remarkably lucid, well-paced filmmaking.
Once the film shifts gears into its second half, The Commuter slowly dials up the Taken-level pulp craziness to a level for which the first hour doesn’t really prepare audiences, and that’s where The Commuter becomes joyously silly. Suddenly, Strangers on a Train turns into Speed, as Neeson’s aged detective is suddenly climbing on and around the train to avoid detection, punching bad guys, and brandishing a gun. But the real highlight is a scene where Neeson uses an electric guitar to fight off an assassin in an empty train car, the entire sequence a bloody ballet of swinging movements as Collet-Serra follows the action in one uninterrupted shot that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.
As the latest installment in what has become its own subgenre at this point, The Commuter serves as a fine example of the kind of tightly-coiled thriller that Neeson and Collet-Serra can do together in their sleep. It’s tempting to ding The Commuter for its dramatic shifts in tone from end to end, but all the moving parts flow elegantly enough to forgive its trespasses. There are some snags, of course – while the script is fun and well-paced, the ‘mystery’ of who is behind it all will be solved by observant moviegoers five minutes in. But unlike most actual commutes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and The Commuter is gripping enough to get you where you need to go.