Back in 2014, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra put an aging Liam Neeson through his paces at 30,000 feet in the B-movie thriller Non-Stop. Following on the heels of two Taken films and Unknown, that movie was merely one entry in the actor’s late-career reinvention as an unlikely action star and dispenser of regular-guy rough justice. Still, it made $92 million at the box office on a relatively modest budget, prompting the inevitable question: Why mess with a successful formula?
In The Commuter, Collet-Serra and Neeson are reunited, this time at sea level. But the ordinary dad-in-extraordinary circumstances theme is exactly the same. Neeson plays Michael McCauley — a 60-year-old husband and father who takes the same Metro North train into Manhattan every day for his job as an insurance salesman. He’s got two mortgages, a son with a hefty college tuition bill, and following the fiscal meltdown of 2008, no savings to fall back on. In other words, he’s an everyday white-collar working stiff who sleepwalks through the same nine-to-five routine day after day while seated next to a sea of familiar faces doing likewise. Oh, he’s also an ex NYPD cop. This will be important… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Adding a frisson of 21st-century timeliness, at the beginning of the film, Michael gets laid off from his job. And he meets up with his old partner on the beat (Patrick Wilson) for a beer to commiserate before heading home on the 6:25 to Cold Spring to break the bad news to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern). But before he can, there’s the commute to deal with. After taking his seat on the crowded train, he’s approached by a mysterious, well-dressed woman in flashy heels who we immediately know will lead to nothing good. Her name is Joanna. And she’s played by Vera Farmiga, who’s all insinuating glances and overly chatty small talk. Only what comes out of her mouth next isn’t small talk at all. It’s the inciting proposition in what will become a cross between a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller and a Neesonian bareknuckle ballet of righteous brutality.
Joanna poses a hypothetical to Michael: What if I asked you to do one little thing, she says. That one thing boils down to finding a certain passenger on their train who’s traveling with a bag — someone who needs to be found and their bag retrieved before he reaches the end of the line. In return, he will get $100,000. He laughs at the preposterousness of the scenario. But a part of him is certainly thinking that that’s the kind of money he could certainly use considering his current circumstances. As Joanna gets off the train, he quickly realizes that this isn’t a hypothetical at all. This is real. And the clock is ticking. Suddenly, everyone on the train (many of whose faces and names he knows from his daily march of Cheever-esque drudgery) is a suspect. He’s like Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express minus the bad mustache. And just to add to his motivation, Joanna periodically calls him to threaten his wife and son.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of bitter pickle we like to see Neeson in these days. And he delivers exactly what we want. Too bad the script can’t too. Peppered with implausibilities and foul-smelling red herrings, The Commuter downshifts from a solid cat-and-mouse joyride to a ridiculous howler, insulting its audience’s patience and intelligence at every turn. Yes, some of the close-quarters fisticuffs are enjoyably crunchy, and Neeson’s well-practiced expression of harried, put-upon heroism is as foolproof as these things come. But the plot is a dog with fleas. Adding lemon juice to the wound, the film’s ending is laughably bad. The Commuter is the kind of passable potboiler that may satisfy your junk-food sweet tooth on late-night cable a year from now. But in first run at full price, all you’ll end up feeling is taken. C+