The Commuter, the next installment in the Liam Neeson Taken-on-vehicle-x series, begins with a barrage montage of his character’s daily routine. Michael MacCauley (Neeson) bangs off his alarm, is given a book to read by his son, is dropped off at the train by his wife, etc. etc., again and again over the course of days and weeks.
It is not an entirely shabby way of opening the movie—it introduces us to our central character and his way of life, as well as the routine that will define his central conflict later on—but it is edited in a jarring way over the opening credits in a manner that is off-putting.
The film co-stars Vera Farmiga—mostly via voiceover—as the instigator of a psychological game on MacCauley’s daily commuter train. She tells MacCauley that someone on the train does not belong, and if he can find that person and place a GPS tracker on their bag before they get off he will earn himself $100,000. A nice chunk of change, considering MacCauley lost his job that very day.
There is some commentary here about recession, I guess, but it is entirely lost in the exceedingly frantic shuffle of the film’s plotting. As the deadline to find this mysterious person—less mysterious as the film progresses, unfortunately—approaches, the screenwriting becomes more fraught and the action becomes more distracting.
It is never a good sign when your action film is least effective when it is depicting action. The instances of hand-to-hand combat, of which there are a few, are constructed with a goofy snappiness that is more entertaining for the artifice of it than for the fight itself.
The plot itself is not devoid of intriguing suspense. MacCauley’s initial steps of detection are rational and are adequately paced. Using punched train tickets to narrow down his list of suspects, he traverses the train and interrogates with differing levels of success and poise. Neeson’s performance is most admirable in this sequence, in which he does a good job playing different roles to get the information he needs.
Once the film proceeds into its second half, however, everything starts breaking down (the tragically comic irony is that the film grinds to an unceremonious halt exactly when the train does). Time runs out, and the film speeds up, but not in a way that makes the suspense more suspenseful or the thriller conceit more thrilling.
Part of the problem here is that the film sets up a larger conspiracy that never has a chance to be as intriguing or relevant to the story as MacCauley’s chase to find his person. A shadow organization that Farmiga is involved with, the local police force, the FBI, a person we see one glimpse of on a TV screen early in the film, are all pieces of this larger puzzle, but none of these pieces feel important or developed. The puzzle only works when MacCauley only has five or six pieces; once the pieces come together, the picture is bland, monochrome.
As far as January releases are concerned, one could do worse than The Commuter. It has cable TV written all over it, but there are certainly some elements that are enhanced by the big screen—again, this first sequence of MacCauley investigating the mystery comes to mind. For every well-shot scene, however, there is one that is bafflingly grotesque—what comes to mind is the expository bar scene in which two characters are talking, but the whole thing is shot in a wobbly handheld framed by the line of beer taps so that the shakiness is all-the-more apparent.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has done some interesting work in the action movie scene. He has done some interesting work in the action movie scene with Liam Neeson as his star. But with The Commuter, the pieces don’t stack up to something worthy of a full-ticket price.
The Commuter: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)