Synopsis – A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.
My Take – Between films carrying their respective Oscar buzz and a slew of January dumps, watching Liam Neeson punch people on a train while solving a mystery seems like the right film to check out during a lazy weekend. Seriously, it’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Liam Neeson became an unexpected action star with the lean, spare but brutally effective thriller, Taken, and in the decade that’s passed cemented his late renaissance with entertaining action flicks like The A-Team, The Grey & Wrath of the Titans among others. However, his collaborations with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) in films like Unknown, Non Stop, and Run All Night, in cheesy thrillers following decent yet similar plotlines with Neeson‘s character saving the day, made up for some guilty pleasure yet successful watch. Here, in their fourth film together, we see director Serra further lay claim to a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock signature with a couple of high-wire scenes that would certainly make fans of the now 65-year-old star really proud. Even though, this film may be a little similar to Non-Stop, Neeson’s commitment to the role and Collet-Serra’s at times inspired direction make for a film that’s hell on wheels. Sure, you can see some of the twists coming from a mile away, but it’s a forgivable sin when they’re executed with so much panache. The story follows Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson), a 60-year old insurance salesman, who wakes up every day and follows routine, while dealing with every day stress with his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and trying to figure out a way to afford the college fees for his son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman).
Upon being terminated at his job, Michael finds his 10 year old routine evening commute back home from work disrupted by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic stranger who sits opposite him on the Metro-North train and offers him $100,000 if he is able to use his ex-NYPD skills to spot a passenger who he doesn’t think is a familiar face, all before they reach the final Cold Spring station. If McCauley fails at this task, his family will be killed. With a synopsis like that, and an entertaining script penned by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, the film uses you can already imagine how tense and claustrophobic this action-thriller was going to be. From minute one, the film is filled with little hints that will end up mattering to the plot at large, and half the fun is watching director Collet-Serra toss them into the margins of the frame and see if the viewer will notice. If you’ve seen his efficient, Blake Lively-starring shark film The Shallows or glossy horror flick Orphan, you already know that director Collet-Serra is a reliable name behind the camera to own up to genre clichés and use them with remarkable finesse and economy, here, he proudly nods to certain action staples of the 90s like Speed, Money Train, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, you name it, all with a straight face. The result is a silly, yet knowingly old-fashioned action film, very welcome in an era where only superheroes seem to be having all the fun. Though, funny enough, watching Collet-Serra and Neeson lean back on what works for them works for us, they know how to take advantage of its setting and distinguish itself from its predecessors in the process. Where Non-Stop used alcoholism as a plot-motivating character detail, this film uses economic anxiety couched in the 2008 financial crisis, when the McCauleys lost their savings in that cluster. Michael thinks twice about accepting Joanna’s offer, but he stops short of thinking three times, as he needs the money. Desperate times, desperate measures, you know! Also, like Non-Stop, this film too is light on action set pieces, at least, until the last 20 minutes, when things really go to hell, and focus heavy on tense, loaded conversations with passengers. Forget Murder on the Orient Express, this mystery, with Michael playing the part of a sweaty Hercule Poirot who’s at the end of his rope is a better watch. Michael knows his pals, the regular riders of the train, aren’t of interest to Joanna—she’s looking for someone who doesn’t belong. From there, it becomes a process of elimination. True to his Hitchcockian ambition, director Serra spins an intriguing web of mystery over most of the middle act, and there are at least three riveting questions that are teased. Who is Prynne? Who is Joanna and/or the people she is working with or for? And finally, what does Joanna want with Prynne? There are altercations with the typically annoying sorts of passengers—the stockbroker yelling on his Bluetooth headset, the guy playing his iPhone game too loud—but does their behavior make them worthy of the nefarious fate Joanna intends for her target? These in turn translate into solid character work for the proverbial strangers on the train whom Michael probes to locate his mark – among them a feisty college student (Florence Pugh), an arrogant Wall Street banker (Shazad Latif), an emotionally distraught nurse (Clara Lago), a tattooed bruiser (Roland Moller) and a taciturn teenager (Ella-Rae Smith). There is a twist in there, when you can start wondering if the villain’s motivation behind all this could have been done differently, yet, director Serra is all too aware that a whodunit in and of itself is unlikely to satiate a good proportion of his audience, who are here to watch Neeson engage in the sort of close-quarter fisticuffs as seen in Taken.
So in between playing detective, Michael also gets a couple of well-choreographed brawls – one of them takes place in the confines between carriages, while another that is impressively done in a single take plays out over an entire carriage with everything from a gun, an ax, a guitar and seat cushions used as weapons. There is visibly concerted effort to keep these fight sequences real, so even though Neeson‘s character is revealed earlier on to be an ex-cop, the film doesn’t (thankfully) use that as an excuse to gift him with “a very particular set of skills” to take down his opponents too easily, skillfully or neatly. Also, director Collet-Serra devises a number of tricky technical maneuvers to approximate his protagonist’s growing immersion and paranoia: speed-ramped tracking shots that snake through the train’s aisles and whip-pan from window to window, CGI-aided camera moves that glide through hole-punched tickets as though attached to homing missiles, and hallucinatory zooms across the train’s entire length that seem to be feverishly materializing MacCauley’s mental map. Like other train-set thrillers, this one doesn’t escape without the train in question going out of control and then literally off the rails. That it is well-staged is undeniable – not even some subpar CGI in some shots can detract from the sheer white-knuckle tension of seeing almost the whole train flip into the air – but this spectacle-fuelled conclusion arguably strains the credibility of the high-concept film even further, and is therefore both better and worse off for it. For the most part, the film zips along, but like other train-set thrillers, this one doesn’t escape without the train in question going out of control and then literally off the rails. Though well-staged, the entire act could have probably have been chopped off or otherwise condensed, with the lean, mean fun of the bulk of the film suddenly bloating into the grim, explosive theatrics that tend to dominate so many blockbusters these days. It’s an unnecessary spectacle, as is only proven by how much more hair-raising the first half of the film is when it’s just Liam Neeson in, on, and around a train; utilizing everything he can in order to stay alive. The shot in which Collet-Serra pulls back from Neeson’s shocked face and then back through the entire train is more thrilling than any of the fireworks that end the film. Also, the rate at which Joanna goes from amiable weirdo to amoral super villain isn’t wholly convincing, nor is a good portion of the plot’s scaffolding (Joanne’s coterie of rogue employees, for one, is a real head-scratcher), but director Collet-Serra keeps the action so grounded in MacCauley’s frenetic toil that, in the moment, any lapses in logic that occur around him end up just feeding the woozy, humid, paranoid atmosphere. Honestly, I think there’s no point in nitpicking a film like this; it delivers exactly what genre enthusiasts would expect: plentiful tension and violence, with occasional sprinklings of sentiment. Notwithstanding, Liam Neeson remains through and through the film’s emotional centre, conveying the frustration, helplessness and resolve of a regular guy who is trying to get his life back in control from those that have snatched it away from him. Lest we forget, this is a role that the thespian can easily do in his sleep, as Neeson brings a certain weight and charisma into these roles that not a lot of action film stars have. Vera Farmiga is her usual great in the small role, so are Jonathan Banks and Patrick Wilson. However, Elizabeth McGovern and Sam Neill are wasted. On the whole, ‘The Commuter’ is a decent nervy action film with enough pulpy thrills and suspense to keep you hooked.
Directed – Jaume Collet-Serra
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 104 minutes