In 2008, with the release of Pierre Morel’s Taken, the unthinkable happened: rugged Irish thespian Liam Neeson, known for his award-nominated roles in films such as Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, became an action star. Many thought that this was a botched Cinderella fitting in the making: how could a respected actor such as Neeson convince as an agile assassin? Yet he pulled it off in an iconic performance that revitalised his star persona, becoming something of a working man’s Tom Cruise.
Now, ten years later, we find Neeson dabbling in action again with The Commuter, his fourth collaboration with Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, their previous partnerships producing Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. It’s a film with a familiar premise: trapped in a claustrophobic environment, with a ticking-clock plot and a clandestine enemy pulling all the strings. Plus, as with the previous three, Neeson and Collet-Serra’s newest film has accumulated quite the star-studded cast, with the likes of Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill all making appearances.
So how does The Commuter fare in Neeson’s action film canon? Well, there’s a good cop, bad cop dichotomy at play in my answer, no unsubtle reference to Neeson’s role in The Lego Movie intended. The bad cop in me is forced to report that The Commuter suffers from a number of narrative hiccups and action-based implausibilities. But the good cop in me is happy to report that you’ll still have a blast watching it, if only you choose to grin through and bear the film’s faint final act.
Firstly, I must admit that the set-up to the film is expertly handled. It starts with a rather refreshing opening sequence, edited ambitiously by Nicolas de Toth, as it flits between different days of a family routine, each day offering our protagonist, Michael (Liam Neeson) a new, sometimes positive, other times unwanted challenge: the sequence exhibits his morning habits, settles us into his domestic life, makes us feel familiar with our lead character and his commute into work. However, this is all disrupted by the introduction of Vera Farmiga’s Joanna, who’s offer of $100,000 in exchange for the life of one of the train’s passengers appears to be a hoax at first, until several unusual and threatening developments force Michael to agree to Joanna’s terms.
Many have described it as Hitchcockian and in a way they’re right. There’s the MacGuffin, the object of desire and/or interest, that Michael is going after, namely the passenger, as seen in so many of Hitchcock’s films such as North by Northwest. There’s the enclosed setting of the train, recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and, more obviously, Strangers on a Train. Plus, there’s the dubious faces of the commuters, reminiscent of Rear Window’s voyeuristic concern with strangers and their motives.
However, I must get this out of the way first: this is not at the level of Hitchcock. While Collet-Serra and his screenwriters Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle amalgamate all the right ingredients, they don’t quite concoct the perfect potion.
This is because The Commuter is unfortunately plagued by a plethora of narrative inconsistencies and implausibilities that may leave you scratching your head. Unlike in Kenneth Branagh’s comparable Murder on the Orient Express, the story isn’t so tightly structured: there is an equal sum of characters to juggle, yet a great many of them only exist as mere red herrings in Michael’s desperate investigation. Furthermore, without giving anything anyway, the inevitable twists in the plot aren’t made all that clear, save for a few scenes that splurge out exposition in order to cover for the fact that there’s little to any build-up for the reveal.
But I can’t criticise The Commuter for too long: even now, I feel like I’m overthinking it. Because, at the end of the day, as with many of Collet-Serra’s films, this is a high-concept idea, fashioned into a commercial product that, despite its flaws, proves that Neeson’s charisma is just about all you need to make an action flick enjoyably watchable.
From his gravel-toned line delivery, to his striking physical presence and his dedication to the stuntwork in many of the film’s action scenes, Neeson is an action star to reckon with, one of the few remaining that can entice any filmgoer to partake in an hour and a half of adrenaline-fuelled storytelling.
Furthermore, Collet-Serra again shows promise as a director capable of elevating the material he is given. From the intense cat-and-mouse antics of Non-Stop, to the lean and mean shark survival thrills of The Shallows, and now with the relentless, whodunit delights of The Commuter, Collet-Serra has shaped himself a filmography packed full of efficient entertainment that is sure to guarantee the man a future in the business of Summer blockbusters.
So what else can I say, other than to hell with it: I would still recommend that you see The Commuter, despite my issues with it. Yes, the narrative can be picked apart via mind-map. Sure, the final action sequence is at Fast & Furious levels of improbability. But, it’s a tonally-sufficient, enthusiastically directed action film that happens to feature one of Hollywood’s most likeable performers in Liam Neeson. I feel like that calls for a commute to the cinema, in order to leaven the mood of your mundane weekly itinerary.