You know we’re running out of action movies for Liam Neeson to chew through when the industry has to mash Strangers on a Train with Unstoppable, then mash that concoction with Murder on the Orient Express, then layer the resultant amalgam over a standard Neeson, Action Star™ plot. Then call it something vague like The Commuter. At the same time, the industry knows how to hook a Neeson audience: If you habitually buy tickets for his old-manly action movies, you’re already in the bag for The Commuter, and if you’re in the bag for The Commuter, the synopsis either doesn’t matter or you threw a fist pump after reading it. “Liam Neeson? On a train? Solving mysteries and punching people? Sweet!”
The plain truth is that The Commuter kicks all kinds of ass. Neeson’s action film credits are reliably unreliable, alternating between utter wastes of time and enjoyably macho fantasies, but he’s developed a groove with Jaume Collet-Serra ever since 2011’s Unknown. The Commuter is their fourth team-up and a welcome return to their established actor-director dynamic following their last, 2015’s Run All Night, a well-meaning movie that’s sorely mistaken about its own importance. Nothing lets the air out of a crowded theater like a self-serious potboiler, much less a self-serious potboiler needlessly wound into knots.
The Commuter rebounds from Run All Night’s hubris, fitting better alongside Unknown and 2014’s Non-Stop as a goofy, high-stakes-but-small-scale actioner wherein Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an average Joe tasked with unmasking a shadowy criminal conspiracy. Really, he’s a veteran ex-cop who hops the commuter train into the city each day to work a thankless job hawking insurance, but he puts on an average Joe face in public, whether to his clients, to his family or to his fellow commuters. (You get the idea that this is how Neeson lives his life, too, pretending he’s merely a down-to-earth type and not at all a grizzled badass.) Then one day he’s unceremoniously let go by his employer, and after catching a beer with his old pal from the force, he gets on the train home and gets caught in the web of a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga).
Joanna, flirty at first and menacing not long after, challenges him to find an unknown passenger on the train—a stranger on the train, you might say—and slap a GPS locator on their bag before they pull into the last stop on the line. His reward: a hundred grand to ease the sting of his firing. But the challenge isn’t easy, or even non-fatal, and as Michael reaches into his bag of cop tricks to figure out the identity of the passenger, threats are made and bodies start piling up.
If there’s a gripe worth holding against the film it’s that Collet-Serra is already repeating his greatest hits with Neeson, lifting Non-Stop’s “search for the culprit” structure, the only difference being that in The Commuter the culprit isn’t actually guilty of a crime. Though, funny enough, watching Collet-Serra and Neeson lean back on what works for them works for us. The Commuter knows how to take advantage of its setting and distinguish itself from its predecessors in the process. Where Non-Stop uses alcoholism as a plot-motivating character detail, The Commuter uses economic anxiety couched in the 2008 financial crisis. The McCauleys lost their savings in that cluster. Michael thinks twice about accepting Joanna’s offer, but he stops short of thinking three times. He needs the money. Desperate times, desperate measures—you know the drill.
Collet-Serra isn’t pompous enough to package The Commuter as stirring commentary on that global meltdown. He only pays off the reference by having Michael flip off an asshole stockbroker riding the train with him, openly disdainful of taking public transportation. Instead, Collet-Serra focuses on going over the top, affixing increasingly loopy twists and turns to what could have been a straightforwardly shameless riff on one of Hitchcock’s most streamlined masterpieces. (It’s worth noting that the film is a love letter to that director’s work through and through, from Rear Window to North by Northwest.) Turns out that the FBI has Joanna on their radar, that other passengers might be playing her game, too, and that she might have cops in her pocket. The more the movie throws at us, the more that Michael’s suspicions become our own and the more delicious Collet-Serra’s excesses become.
The Commuter isn’t a tough puzzle to solve, and it veers closely to being obvious at times. But easy, unsubtle, unabashedly masculine action films don’t need nuance as long as they’re this much of a goofy pleasure to watch. Sometimes you just want an actor like Neeson to fend off an attacker with an electric guitar. If we’re to take Neeson at his word, The Commuter is his last time playing action hero. Too bad, but then again, there are only so many times bad guys can put common man Neeson’s family in harm’s way before the mileage runs out on the setup.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh, Sam Neill, Colin McFarlane, Elizabeth McGovern, Dean Charles-Chapman
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.