Neeson's action film credits are reliably unreliable, alternating between utter wastes of time and enjoyably macho fantasies, but he's developed a groove with Jaume Collet-Serra ever since 2011's Unknown.
That's not necessarily a problem in the Collet-Serra Cinematic Universe, but "The Commuter's" breakneck incoherence - not to mention a generally dour demeanor, shorter on incidental humor than most of the helmer's work - makes it a notch less fun than those previous ex-trash-aganzas. He has a wife and a teenage son heading off to college in a few months and his life is pretty mundane and boring until one day when he gets fired. Farmiga was interesting though and different from her other roles. There's Shazad Latif as the business bro, Andy Nyman as the chatty neighbor, Florence Pugh as the punk teen - everyone is playing a part in the most literal sense possible (and with the clunky dialogue to boot), but it comes together. If MacCauley can identify a passenger who, as Joanna describes "does not belong", he will be rewarded with $100,000 cash. "If the train don't kill me", the conductor says, "then the people will". He only pays off the reference by having Michael flip off an asshole stockbroker riding the train with him, openly disdainful of taking public transportation.
As indicated by the reason behind MacCauley's desperation, there's a little class commentary at work in The Commuter. It's an evolution of the save-the-princess model of storytelling, only refitted to aging suburbanite pop culture fans who still want to feel like Han Solo or Clint Eastwood, and it's a niche that Liam Neeson has found himself very comfortable in.
Or close to it, anyway.
If there's a gripe worth holding against the film it's that Collet-Serra is already repeating his greatest hits with Neeson, lifting Non-Stop's "search for the culprit" structure, the only difference being that in The Commuter the culprit isn't actually guilty of a crime. The plot mechanics don't matter almost so much as the visceral feelings of strength and relevance that a film like this imbues, and sometimes it's nice just to get caught up in a stupid fantasy.
Neeson has suggested that, at 65, he's nearing the end of the line.
At its heart, The Commuter is very much a how movie rather than a why movie.
Lest audiences put too much tortuous thought into the motives or endgame of pretty much anyone in this scenario, Collet-Serra cranks up this locomotive as he knows best, building as much breathless, senseless real-time momentum as possible before train and plot go simultaneously, albeit spectacularly, off the rails.
The result is a piece of glorified B-movie action-suspense that is just watchable enough to justify in a late-night pinch, but nothing that would hold up in the light of day. How is he going to survive bringing an electric guitar to a knife fight? The supporting cast is fine but without any real standouts. And it's a formula that works. Neeson and Collet-Serra's whooshing, whiplash-inducing fourth collaboration could as easily be titled "Run Non-Stop Into the Unknown" - a moving-train whodunit that makes Kenneth Branagh's jacked-up "Murder on the Orient Express" remake look like "Jeanne Dielman" by comparison, it's so concerned with its own sheer speed that any semblance of storytelling logic is left waving from the platform. Planes, check; trains, check; there are only so many more places to go that are quite so contained as environments for a man to suffer a crisis of conscience, but it's hard not to hope that the options will be limitless. Then a stretch limo, maybe?
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