Review: The Commuter
In director Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest film, The Commuter, Liam Neeson plays Michael, an ex-cop who gets fired from his insurance firm. He’s an arm's reach away from retirement, and after years of hard work he’s unexpectedly given the boot. That same day, after a few drinks at the bar, he takes the train back home, the same commute he’s taken for the last ten years. There, he’s approached by a woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him $100,000 if he helps identify someone on the train who shouldn’t be there. The film doesn’t waste much time setting up the premise; Michael is quickly tossed into intrigue as the offer becomes life or death, as Michael’s family is held hostage and he’s forced to find this mystery person before the train reaches its final stop.
The Commuter is another gem in Collet-Serra’s filmography, which is chock full of throwback thrillers (Orphan, The Shallows) and Neeson-led actioners (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). If the script isn’t all there, you sure as hell can expect Collet-Serra to impress with his camera work—just look at the The Shallows, one of the most underrated films of the last five years, undoubtedly, it’s a film stewing with originality and a respect for ticking-clock survivalist tales. If there’s anything he can do well, it’s elevate B-movie material like a pro, and he makes The Commuter a super entertaining ride.
The mystery in the film might be all too easy for the audience to solve, but Collet-Serra keeps it all engaging. Neeson's Michael slyly checks each passenger’s ticket in a well-constructed sequence that makes looking at holes punched in tickets actually interesting. Neeson, the 65-year-old action star, plays a 60-year-old in the movie who still has it in him to beat the living hell out of people half his age. There’s a one-take fight scene that keeps upping the ante on the ridiculous—it’s another example of just how self-aware Collet-Serra is and how eager he is to embrace the pulpy elements of this thriller.
It becomes a ‘kitchen sink’ film, as it tries to juggle police corruption, Wall Street greed, and ageism, all handled with the subtilty of a hammer through glass—Michael gives the middle finger to a Goldman Sachs stock broker, just to remind you he’s a patron of the middle-class. The focus shifts for the final act, almost inexplicably, to the diverse passengers on the train as they come together against the threat that endangers them all. The long list of Hitchcockian influences is strong here, as it goes from a North by Northwest style romp on a train to Lifeboat on a train. It works, though, and that’s thanks to the film’s unpretentious approach. Take one example—in the face of death, the train’s ticket-take manages to throw in a crowd-pleasing, corny one-liner. By this point in the film, you're on the characters' side so much that if you're not laughing, you'll be nodding politely in respect.
Collet-Serra understands the grounded Hitchcock sensibilities, much like Brian De Palma, but he also manages to add Spielberg-level spectacle. In a massive action sequence, trains get tossed around like toys being tossed by a kindergartner—Neeson looks upon the destruction, tilting his head up in awe of a train carriage as if it were a looming dinosaur. The sequence ends with a sight gag that, again, skews light as a feather—add it all up and The Commuter might be the best, legitimate ‘dad joke’ movie ever made.
Liam Neeson, being one of the most dad of film dads, doesn’t sleepwalk through his role here. Last year, Neeson said he was retiring from action movies, but later said, “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground. I’m unretired.” You can feel that sentiment in Neeson’s Michael, who at one point says, “I’m 60-years-old, I have nothing to offer,” but then goes about taking down a massive conspiracy and—spoiler—living to fight another day. Could we see a The Commuter franchise of films, featuring a commuting 60-year-old taking down bad guys with full force? I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened, and I am, for one, here for it. Luckily, there's a director like Collet-Serra out there to elevate premises like these, all of which sound absurd on paper.