The Commuter review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
If you think The Commuter is just a redux of Liam Neeson’s Non-Stop, swapping out a plane for a train, well, you’re not wrong. It’s the very same template with all the predictable Neesonisms we’ve come to expect from a vehicle with the aged action hero behind it. But before you dismiss it as little more than that, consider the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, the man behind Neeson’s better action movie. Granted, Non-Stop and Run All Night are not precisely original productions, but there’s just enough style and grit to make them serviceable. In this sense, Jaume once more delivers on a film that is frustratingly off but still very much engaged.
Okay, let’s get the predictable plot points out of the way. Yes, Neeson plays a man with a family and a troubled life. Yes, he will be contacted by a mysterious figure on the train that demands he kill someone as part of a conspiracy. Yes, he will pick up a cell phone and start barking back at his antagonizers, despite the film’s early attempt to shake it from his hand. Yes, he will get into some heated fistfights, including getting his head shoved out a window and running alongside the train. Strangely missing though is the scene where he scales the top of the speeding train. But, of course, you will get to see that train fly off the rails.
The argument of this film being bad because it’s replicating the same formula is a moot one. What matters is how much the film manages to entertain, despite its predictability. And to my surprise, Jaume still pulls in another pleasing action thriller by the skin of his teeth. His bag of tricks isn’t empty, loading up his picture with as much unique cinematography as you can have on a train. I admired his camera work that zips across the aisles, pushes through the holes in ticket stubs, and gets uncomfortably close under the train as the wheels speed towards the next stop. I also appreciated how Jaume seems to be establishing a new trademark with Neeson fighting off a bad guy with a ludicrous weapon. He did so with flaming two-by-fours in Run All Night, and now he’s fighting someone off with a guitar. His opponent is brandishing an ax; there’s probably a decent joke in there.
The film still has many faults typical of Jaume’s style, the most glaring being his reduced use of a strong supporting cast. Vera Farmiga plays the stylish villain of the film in her striking zebra heels, but she spends more time talking to Neeson over the phone than addressing him in person. Patrick Wilson is a likable guy as Neeson’s old police partner, but he’s treated more like a bookend character. The same goes for the police chief played by Sam Neill, a man who or may not be corrupt. I understand why Jaume mostly shelved these actors to keep the mystery always fresh, but it still feels like a waste.
The Commuter has so many twists and turns that continue to mount higher in the absurdity that after a while I stopped questioning or caring about the story. Even the director seems to understand this, shoving the MacGuffin and overarching conspiracy plot further into the back row, in favor of more action, fights, and heated exchanges. For the most part, it still works. Neeson is always a lot of fun to watch as an old and desperate man, eager for cash, but angry enough to question his antagonizers. His detective work is engaging, narrowing down the passengers he’s looking for by stops and backpacks. None of it makes for remarkably memorable film, as it’s most likely to get lost somewhere between the shuffle of Unstoppable and Under Siege 2, but I still found myself being won over time and time again, more than I did the mystery of Branagh’s dry Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe Neeson should take a whack at Poirot.