Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle
With 2017 just entering awards season, it seems just a little funny to already be moving on to 2018 releases, but such is the nature of the business. While we all come together to celebrate the last year in film, the great films, the great performances (and even lament about some of the worst of the year as well), January becomes a barren wasteland of new releases, as is often the case, with a few holdovers from the previous year also mixed in, late releases which saw NY/LA release just in time to qualify for awards, but come to most other markets as the calendar flips its page. It would be nice to report that 2018 has started off with a bang, or that The Commuter, the latest from action star Liam Neeson, which still feels a little weird typing, and his collaborator, director Jaume Collet-Serra, is the exception to the January rule. But it’s not.
The plot is as paint-by-numbers as you might expect. Liam Neeson plays a former badass trying to be a normal guy now when the baddies barge into his life at the precise wrong time. Little do they know they’re in for an ass-whopping. In this version, Neeson plays Michael, a former New York City cop turned insurance salesman who, after getting laid off from his job on the eve of his kid going off to college, is propositioned to perform a social experiment for the cash he now desperately needs by an unknown woman (Vera Farmiga) on the commuter train home to the suburbs. Find someone who doesn’t belong, a person named Prynne, who is carrying a bag, which you won’t know what it looks like. Not knowing the consequences of his mission, Michael takes up the challenge, but soon finds himself wrapped up in the chase to find the witness to a murder. But who will get to the mysterious Prynne first, the good guys, or the bad guys? And which is Michael?
Social experiments are an interesting premise for an action movie like this. Sort of an action episode of John Quinones’ “What Would You Do” starring Liam Neeson. But with such a premise, a “wrong man” yarn, and such a confined setting which lends itself to the sort of Hitchcockian thrillers I tend to love, the film lacks a backbone, the type of values which make this type of narrative worthwhile. The screenplay lets this film down a million times over, making it stoop to the levels of the January trash. Instead of delving into the psychological foibles and truly imperative economic aftershocks such a proposition may impart upon our hero, the film focuses instead on the MacGuffin of it all, trying to find Prynne. Prynne is not what is interesting about this movie, but don’t tell that to Collet-Serra and his team of writers, who manage to suck the joy and awe and humanity out of this story.
Michael should be a truly conflicted character, one whose backstory has proven to us the anguish with which he decides to go to bed with a total stranger to conspire against a potentially innocent bystander. Instead he jumps to a decision and we’re off and running with him. That is likely the most egregious error in production, but as Michael makes his way through the train, searching for Prynne and trying to survive along the way, his questionable antics and decisions, even in the face of everyday passengers who “know” who he is, do nothing to give him the type of benefit of the doubt he receives throughout the film. Oh, you disappeared and are now all of a sudden dirty and beaten? Ho-hum. Oh, you got into a fight with a complete stranger? Ho-hum. Oh, you’re now brandishing a gun and talking about some zany conspiracy? Ho-hum, we’ll take you, an otherwise complete stranger, at your word, as opposed to the police, who have boarded the train twice in search of you. Logic and common sense checked themselves out out of this film very early on in the process.
Even the villains are way underdeveloped. Joanna, the mysterious woman who finds a seat next to Michael in order to persuade him to do the bad deed, is essentially a figment of his imagination, with no connection to anyone or anything. And what about her cronies on the train keeping Michael in order? What are their stories? Are they normal people in need of cash like Michael? What went into their decisions to agree to this? Michael’s motive is razor thin, but the motive for the villains is even thinner, since we know next to nothing about any of them. In a circumstance like this, why are we not learning more about what kind of pressure and home life issues would push a “noble” man to do such a horrible thing, such a desperate thing? The Commuter‘s most thrilling moments are all set up by a series of smoke and mirrors, which, when lifted, reveal a completely hollow and socially and morally bankrupt core. Don’t be fooled by Liam’s charming gruff, even for his aging action badass sub-genre, this is one of his worst.
★★ – Poor