A taut Agatha Christie-esq thriller fronted by prime Liam Neeson, this delightfully intelligent yet wonderfully freakish baby of Speed and The Orient Express provides for one hell of a Friday-night blast. It goes without saying how to difficult it is to balance stupid fun with insightful themes in a movie, and any movie that does so is a truly remarkable feat –even more so considering the entire film takes place in the cramped confines of a commuter train. But with a twisty yet conscientious script and masterful direction, this movie proves the exception. At once it is both a rapturously over-the-top splurge of adrenaline and a deceptively damning critique of the failure of a rigged American rat-race; there is nothing here that will soon be forgotten.
This is the review I would have loved to write for The Commuter. It is not, sadly, the one I can write.
While obviously extraordinarily positive in its description of a singularly perfect blockbuster, it is not even so ridiculous to imagine The Commuter earning those raves. There are numerous moments dotted throughout the picture that suggest the possibility of a uniquely brilliant bit of pulp mystery, and an excess of some of my favorite talents behind and in front of the camera made the film a must-watch for me before the trailer had even dropped. The action/mystery genre is criminally neglected in Hollywood, but star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have proved apt at achieving success before in this type of film. The creators of the similar albeit exponentially better movie Non-Stop a couple years back, Neeson and Collet-Serra showed their ability to produce a heart-racing story of claustrophobic deception and danger in an effortlessly watchable who-dun-it.
So what changed here?
Besides a swap in scenery (literally just exchanging a plain for a train) absolutely nothing. It’s the same damn story. But hampered by the film’s child-like inception and a dour portrayal of pure adrenaline, everything changed. Ranging all the way from boring to super-boring and (when it really digs deap) to downright atrocious, The Commuter is –dare I say it– an occasional train-wreck, really only worth checking out after you’ve reached the Taken sequels level in the Neeson catalog.
Although the choppy dialogue is an unnerving sign of things to come, the opening does start off quite promising. A montage chronicles the monotonous prison of the 9-5 American dream, with Michael (Neeson) a New York Insurance salesman (and ex-cop although that only matters for the plot) rising with the crack of dawn every day to fall into the familiar routine before trudging off to take the train to work. Shimmering with just enough hope and family to rise above the far darker hell the film merely alludes to, the beginning nonetheless faintly resembles the off-kilter allegory of an old Twilight Zone episode.
Already struggling with getting the money to send their son to Syracuse, Michael’s future is suddenly shaken when he is fired from his job. Little more than a stitch in a much larger quilt, the sickening reality of Michael’s world –the world of the 21st-century middle class– is not simply implied, with some heavy-handed dialogue fiercely condemning a post-2008 society of spare parts and egregious abuse by the upper classes. The painfully overt dialogue lacks any nuance whatsoever, and it quickly became clear that in the hands of a more suited director there was a deeply meta and existential commentary to be made, but it is an agreeably ambitious touch and I was pleasantly surprised. Ultimately, though, any political angle was flushed and forgotten just as soon as the “real” movie started.
Of course, this would be forgivable if we could at least be treated to an entertaining couple hours of suspense (plot twist: this doesn’t happen). As soon as he sits down for the long train ride home, a woman (Vera Farminger) approaches him with a “hypothetical” challenge. If he identifies a mysterious passenger on the train, he will be given 100,000 dollars. Desperate for cash, Michael decides to play along and is soon pulled head-first into a torturous mystery with severely violent unintended consequences. Lacking the suffocating urgency and tight writing that made Non-Stop so thrilling to watch though, we are helplessly dragged along for a rather tedious story without the delicious twists and biting dialogue needed to make it any fun. It’s not abysmal, not for the most part at least and a Liam Neeson film is always gonna be some fun, but it’s all severely under-baked. There are attempts to stuff in more enthralling themes of corruption and anonymous valor, but even Neeson’s muffled growl can’t help much stick on the wall. And similarly, any heartfelt moments are so devoid of humanity they are left hanging in an almost uncanny-valley depiction, with a predictable ending so clearly (and badly) stolen from the Non-Stop it left me with a sour taste in my mouth for the 20 minutes before I forgot completely about the film.
Maybe that’s for the better I guess. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe I was just expecting too much. But I just feel that, short of starting a class revolution, a B action movie could at least provide enough fun to cover the cost of admission for us cash-strapped folks in the drowning middle class.