By Kim Hughes
If the filmmakers behind The Commuter had a clue how to end their movie, it’d be much harder and far less tempting to conjure every dogeared cliché inevitable with a film set on a moving train: derailment, wreck, off-the-rails, man-made disaster… take your pick.
That’s only a problem because the first two-thirds of this quasi-suspenseful crime drama are gripping, and the movie is well cast, notably with Liam Neeson — the reigning king of mature, visibly fallible but ultimately victorious Hollywood action heroes — playing a wounded everyman opposite Vera Farmiga as a mysterious and lethal interloper and Patrick Wilson as a freshly scrubbed bad ass.
The Commuter’s lame denouement is especially disappointing coming from director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose 2009 square-peg thriller Orphan was crucially buoyed by its twist ending. The creepy kiddo is actually a grown-up! Sexual intrigue with adopted dad! Zinger! Pass those cheese balls!
Here, Neeson’s hollowed-out insurance slinger Michael MacCauley is a maybe disgraced, maybe just over-the-hill but still sleuth-y former cop… a point that would make those fight scenes and narrow escapes much more white-knuckle if we didn’t know that fact pretty much from the start.
Ah well, it’s January. They can’t all be awards getters.
We meet Michael as he and his family — loving wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and college-bound son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) — cling listlessly and, it turns out precariously, to a comfortably stultifying suburban life supported by Michael’s dutiful daily drone trips into the city. One day, Michael is called into the boss’s office and summarily fired. This is very bad for Michael, age 60 with few employment prospects, an overextended home life, and the beforementioned kid needing tuition, stat.
Soon begins the slow but inexorable ride back to the ‘burbs where Michael must break the crushing news to the family. But first, a quick drink with ex-colleague Alex Murphy (Wilson), still in the cop game and possibly ensnared in something nefarious with newly promoted Captain Hawthorne (Sam Neill) who can’t seem to keep his shifty eyeballs off Michael. Foreshadowing? Red herring? Keep watching…
Once aboard the train, Michael is approached by a foxy fellow passenger (Farmiga) with a proposition a freshly canned, pre-retirement shlub simply can’t resist: one hundred grand for sniffing out a stranger amid the rank-and-file riding the rails with Michael before the train’s final stop. Oh, also: threat of death to his family should he fail.
So begins Michael’s hand-wringing process of elimination and multiple cases of mistaken identity which lead to fisticuffs and senseless murders because this is an action thriller with Liam Neeson, dummy. Check those egghead queries with the impossibly quick-witted ticket taker.
But still. Why are the stakes so high? And how can a villain with tech so advanced that they can monitor Michael’s every move on the train, infiltrate his conversations on a borrowed cell phone and eavesdrop on his vulnerable family not figure out who the coveted and elusive stranger is on their own? With, like, Google.
The Commuter’s final scenes are convoluted to the point of ridiculous though not self-conscious enough to be wink-nudge amusing, which would have added a welcome and unexpected dimension. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers plot perforated with logical holes big enough to steer a runaway train straight through (ah c’mon… you knew that was coming).
And yet Neeson remains committed and indisputably watchable throughout, a beacon amid a smouldering heap of twisted logic and garbled conclusions. He's got a very particular set of skills alright… skills acquired over a very long career, to quote our man’s most celebrated dialogue from Taken. Commuter director Collet-Serra is damn lucky to have him. And so are we.
The Commuter. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill and Jonathan Banks. Opens wide January 12.