Film Review: "The Commuter" is just competent enough to avoid a trainwreck
In 2008, moviegoers and internet meme aficionados alike were blessed with the cinematic phenomenon that is Taken, a Luc Besson-produced game-changing action thriller that challenged us with a bold question: "What if Die Hard, but Liam Neeson?"
The answer has been haunting us ever since. Grossing over 226 million dollars, Taken had, in fact, taken Hollywood by storm; spawning two more sequels and an upcoming PREQUEL TV show over the next ten years (keep an eye out for "Taken: Turn off the Dark" on Broadway). Most importantly, though, was that the movie had propelled Neeson into peak Action-Dad status, which in turn gave birth to delightful sub-genre of the blockbuster experience: The “Taken, But…”. Movies that fall within this category include Non-Stop (Taken, but on a plane), A Walk Among the Tombstones (Taken, but in graveyards), The Grey (Taken, but with wolves), and Run All Night (Taken, but with even more running) - you get the gist. While the quality of these films may vary (with the harrowing and poignant The Grey being the main standout), they mostly meet the following criteria:
- Liam Neeson has a particular set of skills.
- Liam Neeson has to use said skills to save his family (or other misc. innocent lives).
- Liam Neeson proceeds to kick ass, take names, and - you guessed it - save some people.
Surprise surprise, The Commuter, director Jaume Collet-Serra's follow-up to previous "Taken, But" movies Non-Stop and Run All Night, meets all three of these criteria. This time, Neeson plays the titular commuter, Michael, an insurance salesman who has a daily routine of catching the commuter train to work. Except, it may not be his daily routine for much longer, as the movie begins with Michael's boss cryptically informing him that he is being inexplicably 'let go' from his job after many years of loyal service.
Worried about his ability to financially support his wife (Downton Abbey's, Elizabeth McGovern, in Thankless Role #1), and pay for his son's college tuition, an exasperated Michael begins his journey home, only to meet Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a mysterious first-timer on the train route who takes the seat across from him. Joanna wastes no time and offers Michael a mysterious proposition, and introduces us to the film's intriguing premise: Using his particular set of skills (check!) as an ex-cop, he must find a person who "does not belong" on the train, identify that person, and he will receive $75,000 in return. Neeson-ing ensues.
On paper, The Commuter had the potential to transcend the conventional trappings of the action-thriller genre by doubling-down on the "whodunnit" Murder On The Orient Express-esque mystery it promises, but as the movie throttles through one non-sensical action-packed scene after another, it becomes clear that, much like Non-Stop, the "mystery" is, ironically, merely a red-herring - a disappointing Trojan horse employed to disguise the same-old blockbuster mediocrity underneath. That said, once you dispel any hope of substance, you will enjoy The Commuter for what it really is: A stylish, mindlessly entertaining extended montage of Liam Neeson doing what he does best. What more can you ask for?
Well, a better screenplay, for one. Collet-Serra has proven himself to be a master of the modern blockbuster action sequence, and brings his dependably kinetic and exhilarating visual flair to the set pieces throughout The Commuter. But all that flash, no matter how visually enticing, is ultimately let down by a bare-bones script that burns just enough coal to go through the motions of a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that begs you to "just go along with it".
Farmiga and the rest of the movie's talented supporting cast, which boasts Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, and Sam fuckin' Neil, do what they can with the exposition and perfunctory dialogue they are saddled with. However, The Commuter is just competent enough to give us an enjoyable conclusion, by serving up some much-needed humour and a final act twist that we'll happily embrace with a shrug and a "yeah, sure".
While "Taken, but on a train" may not be the ticket to the riveting mystery you were looking for, it might just be worth the price of admission as a mindless, action-packed thrill ride.