Liam Neeson expands his action repertoire in “The Commuter,” in which he plays a man who’s roped into a murder conspiracy after meeting a mysterious woman on a train. The film tries to offer a nail-biting experience but is hampered by a muddy script and shoddy special effects.
The story, which is credited to three writers, combines elements of Hitchcock with those of a modern action movie. It’s an interesting pairing of aesthetics that might have worked had the script been better.
Neeson is Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman who’s followed the same routine for years: he wakes up, gets ready for work, kisses his wife goodbye, takes the train into New York City, puts in his time and returns home. “The Commuter” opens with a montage of MacCauley putting himself through his paces over the course of several years.
There are small variations in his routine. Some days, he and his wife are arguing as she drops him off at the train station; other days, they’re laughing and in love. But the bones of his day never change.
Until they do. One day, MacCauley’s boss tells him, “We gotta let you go.” Stunned, MacCauley wanders outside, uncertain about where to go or what to do.
He eventually finds himself on the train home, where a stranger strikes up a conversation. Soon, she’s telling him there’s a compartment in the train containing $25,000, which is his along with another $75,000 if he finds someone named “Prynne” before the train reaches its last stop. She also hints at knowing about his days as a cop.
From there, it’s off to the races. It’s also where my mind exploded with questions. Two federal agents are waiting for Prynne at the last stop. Why didn’t they go to Prynne’s home instead of asking him or her to take a train to a remote stop?
Once the bad guys learned which train Prynne would be on, did they vet all the usual passengers until they found a former cop? How did they do this?
And since they have no problem with killing people (they dispatch a few thugs to MacCauley’s house to slaughter his wife and kids if he refuses or fails), wouldn’t it have been easier and cheaper to just blow up the train?
Even if you give the writers these leaps of logic, they never identity the bad guys behind these preposterous machinations and the way Prynne becomes involved is lazy and lame.
All of that said, there’s still some fun to be had here. As a former cop, MacCauley can use both his brains and his fists to work his way through this dilemma, and I enjoyed watching him both think his way through each step of the process and get physical when necessary. Plus, the looming specter of the final stop added an element of suspense that never lets up.
Also, the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who’s now made four action-thrillers with Neeson, tried to deliver a fun movie. I’ve complained in the past about Collet-Serra’s use of a shaky camera and caffeine-fueled editing to mask poor fight choreography, but in “The Commuter,” the action is quite good. I especially liked the in-cabin fight between MacCauley and another passenger, which at least appears to have been shot without any cuts.
I love when a filmmaker pushes to improve on their past work, which Collet-Serra does with “The Commuter.”
Unfortunately, he’s hampered by trashy special effects. Particularly bad is a train wreck, which looks lifted from a cheaply animated video game cutscene.
If you’re still in a forgiving mood after enduring the film’s ups and downs, then you’ll enjoy Neeson, who was clearly all-in with this movie. He sells every moment, whether it’s adjusting his strategy after being wrong about the identity of Prynne or hanging from the edge of a speeding train as he tries to uncouple two cars.
Neeson has said he’s nearly past his sell-by date on action movies. While I’d rather see him in more dramatic roles like “The Grey” and “Silence,” both of which are phenomenal films with superb performances by Neeson, I’m going to miss his B-quality action flicks. They’re not the best movies out there but you could do worse with your time.