Throughout his late renaissance as an action hero, Liam Neeson has battled wolves (The Grey), evil Albanians (Taken), evil Turks (Taken 2), flight turbulence (Non-Stop), an unwanted TV show adaptation (The A-Team), an unwanted board game adaptation (Battleship), more evil Albanians (Run All Night), evil Germans (Unknown) and even evil Nazis, if you want to go all the way back to Schindler’s List.
But in The Commuter, which marks the 65-year-old star’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director and Hitchcock enthusiast Jaume Collet-Serra, he may be facing his greatest challenge yet: trying to take the Metro-North Railroad home from New York City during rush hour. (Had he been using the disastrous NYC subway system, Neeson would have been doomed from the start. At least here he has a fighting chance.)
Thoroughly enjoyable to watch if totally forgettable once you leave the theater, The Commuter feels like one of those films they simply don’t make anymore, at least in Hollywood. It’s a certified B-movie without superheroes or interplanetary travel, drawing its power from a whodunit, race-against-the-clock scenario that plays as if The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train were chopped up and tossed into the blender along with a slab of CGI and a full bottle of Dexedrine. Given the dearth of solid thrillers to come out of the U.S. last year, this Lionsgate domestic release stands to turn a strong profit when it hits movie houses worldwide starting in mid-January.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an Irishman in New York (no need to justify the brogue) whose backstory is dished out in an expedited 10 minutes, including a whiplash opening credits sequence that shows him repeatedly taking the same Hudson Line train from his picturesque suburb to his job selling insurance in the city. But on this particular day, MacCauley is beset with a slew of problems before the story even begins: He has to figure out how to pay college tuition for his children at the same time that he’s been laid off from work just a few months shy of retirement. We also learn that he used to be in the NYPD, which will help explain why, later on, he’s so good at handling a gun or beating the bejesus out of anyone who gets in his way.
Such is the setup when Neeson boards a packed 6 p.m. train at Grand Central Station and quickly finds himself face-to-face with Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a flirty femme fatale who makes him a curious offer: If he can identity a certain someone named Prynne who isn’t part of the usual commuting crowd, then he will be awarded a decent chunk of change. Oh, and also, if he doesn’t help out, his family will be killed.
Anyone who’s seen Neeson in the Taken franchise — part of an action subgenre sometimes referred to as “daddy porn” — should know by now that you do not mess with the man’s brethren. Yet even if it’s easy to predict that MacCauley will come out on top, part of what makes The Commuter so watchable is the way Collet-Serra and writers Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle tease out the tension throughout the protagonist’s long voyage home, keeping the pyrotechnics to a minimum until the final reel.
Making the most of the setting and scenario, the filmmakers dip into Hitchcock’s toolbox many a time, starting with a Vertigo-style dolly zoom the moment MacCauley realizes what a jam he’s in. Indeed, if Collet-Serra has already proven himself an earnest admirer of the Master of Suspense in the Neeson vehicles Unknown and Non-Stop, this movie seems like a veritable fanboy letter — from plot points ripped out of the aforementioned train-set flicks to a fight scene that takes a few cues from Shadow of a Doubt to the fact that the story kicks off in Grand Central Station, where Cary Grant headed out West with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. All that’s missing is the giant phallus of a train that ended that movie, whereas here it’s more a case of coitus interruptus when MacCauley’s Metro-North literally flies off the rails at one point, leading to a final showdown.
In terms of MacGuffins, the one that The Commuter uses is not the most convincing, nor does there seem to be any real psychological depth to the proceedings. Viewers looking for Hitchcockian subtext should probably exit at the first station, but if you simply want to ride along without thinking too much about it, there is plenty to chew on, with a script that keeps the guessing game going as MacCauley tries to figure out which of his fellow passengers is his target and which one may be targeting him.
Neeson has definitely done this role a lot as of late, but that doesn’t make him any less good at it. There’s a world-weariness in the way he plays guys like MacCauley that could almost be a running joke by now — time to save the day yet again, daddy — but he brings enough gritty conviction to the table to make it feel like he’s never dialing it in. He’s backed by a solid supporting cast, including Farmiga, who only appears in a few scenes but quickly makes herself a pivotal player; Patrick Wilson, playing an old cop pal who becomes increasingly suspicious; and a slew of character actors depicting a multiethnic New York straddling many classes, from the douchey Wall Street banker to the part-time nurse with an attitude.
Like in Collet-Serra’s other films, tech credits are slick and definitely showy, with Paul Cameron’s camera gliding back and forth through the cars as if it were attached to a zip-line. One memorable fight sequence is done in a single take — or at least one that was seamlessly stitched together in post — and involves Neeson contending with an ax, a gun, several seat cushions and lots of glass. It’s totally over the top, yet impressive in the way it uses every element in the train as a suspense mechanism.
The same goes for The Commuter, which admirably transforms what’s usually the most boring, annoying, frustrating, smartphone screen-staring part of the day into a matter of life and death.
Production companies: StudioCanal, The Picture Show Company, Ombra Films, TF1 Film Production
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neil
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle, from a story by Bryon Willinger, Philip de Blasi
Producers: Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman
Executive producers: Michael Dreyer, Juan Sola, Jaume Collet-Serra, Ron Halperin, Didier Lupfer
Director of photography: Paul Cameron
Production designer: Richard Bridgland
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Music: Roque Banos
Editor: Nicolas de Toth
Casting: Red Poerscout-Edgerton
Rated PG-13, 104 minutes