2.5 out of 5 stars.
From the director who gave us Liam Neeson punching people on a plane, we now get Liam Neeson punching people on a train. “The Commuter” marks the fourth collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson, having worked together before on films like “Run All Night,” “Unknown,” and the aforementioned “Non-Stop.” By now, we all know how these films work: they’re entertaining enough, with great action sequences that cover up a story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard. “The Commuter” ticks off all those boxes and then some.
But while the material may lack substance Collet-Serra makes up for it with his stylish directing. The film opens with a montage showing the daily life of Michael MacCauley (Neeson), an insurance salesman who has taken the same train to work every day for the last ten years. Various conversations with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) as she drops him off at the station and with his teenage son Danny as the days pass by, nothing remarkable about any of them. That is, until the day Michael is laid off from his job. At 60 years old, he is still several years out from retirement, and his son is about to head off to college, so money is tight. On the train home, he is approached by a woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who proposes a hypothetical, moral situation to Michael: if there was $25,000 hidden on the train, with the promise of another $75,000 later if he only found a person on the train going by the name of Prynne before they get off at their stop at Cold Spring, would he help find them? Joanna gets off the train, but Michael quickly realizes that the situation is not hypothetical, his life, the lives of everyone on board the train, and the lives of his family, are at stake.
There are still plenty of thrills in this movie, although it feels like the action has been de-escalated compared to previous Neeson action movies. But with now 65-year-old Neeson playing a 60-year-old commuter, that’s appropriate. And instead of being a former elite agent or hitman, Michael is an ex-cop—albeit a very good one, apparently. Neeson, as always, manages to elevate even the blandest material with his performance, but actually, the entire cast of this movie is quite good, certainly better than the material they are given to work with. The supporting cast includes Patrick Wilson as Michael’s former partner Alex Murphy, and Sam Neill as another former colleague, Captain Hawthorne. It’s also fun to see the always great Jonathan Banks as one of the regular commuters on Michael’s train.
The first half of the film is more interesting than the first, setting up the action as a moral dilemma that loses relevancy as the story progresses. The initial mystery is intriguing, as Michael must both try to find this person on the train, but also try to figure out why these people targeted him, and why they want this person found. But the real story turns out to be more underwhelming and, when you really think about it, completely nonsensical. There are so many plot holes and vague motivations, but that’s part of the formula that Collet-Serra has established by now: place the action at the forefront and keep the story moving, so those inconsistencies aren’t as noticeable.
“The Commuter” isn’t any better than any of Collet-Serra and Neeson’s previous films together, which is to say that, if you find those movies amusing, you’ll likely be amused by this one too. But this film may be the first sign of that formula starting to get tired.
Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.