Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Florence Pugh, Elizabeth McGovern, Shazad Latif, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andy Nyman, Killian Scott, Clara Lago, Roland Moller.
Non-stop on a train?
Ever since he reinvented himself as the vengeful father out to rescue his daughter from kidnappers in the 2008 action thriller Taken, Liam Neeson has been pigeonholed as the go-to man to play the aging hero with a particular skill set who is able to take down the bad guys. He has basically found himself playing a variation on that role for the past decade. His most successful forays into this genre have been his three previous collaborations with young Spanish film maker Jaume Collet-Serra in the relentlessly paced, race against time thrillers Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night.
The Commuter is their fourth collaboration and it is the lesser of their four films together. It comes across like a reheated variation of Non-stop, albeit set on a train. Trains have been the setting for some great suspense films in the past, in particular the 1952 low budget noir thriller The Narrow Margin (superior to the 1990 remake that starred Gene Hackman), the 1976 comedy thriller Silver Streak, and Robert Aldrich’s tough depression era drama Emperor Of The North, amongst others.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former New York detective who has worked as an insurance salesman for the past decade. He is struggling financially with a huge mortgage and a son about to head off for college. But then begins his very bad day. He is suddenly retrenched from his job, five years short of retirement age. He has a few drinks with his former partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) before boarding his train for the long regular commute back home in upstate New York. On the train he is approached by the mysterious and seductive Joanna (Vera Farmiga, from the tv series Bates Motel, etc), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. She offers him $100,000 if he will track down a mysterious passenger before the train reaches its last stop and plant a GPS tracking device on their person.
MacCauley doesn’t know who these mysterious people are who want to locate a stranger on a train, but if he refuses to cooperate his family will suffer the consequences. MacCauley finds himself caught up in a criminal conspiracy with high stakes.
Collet-Serra makes the most of the claustrophobic setting here, and Richard Bridgland’s production design for the interiors of the train is good. Cinematographer Paul Cameron, who has collaborated frequently with the late Tony Scott, makes the most of the confined settings, and he brings a sense of energy to the largely static setting through the movement of his camera. He also effectively uses handheld cameras to take us into the thick of a couple of action sequences.
Collet-Serra is great at staging action sequences, and, as he demonstrated with the shark thriller The Shallows, he also has a deft way of ratcheting up the suspense of a given situation. There are a couple of superbly choreographed action sequences here, although now, given his age, Neeson is more vulnerable and slower in the clinches, and he does seem to suffer some physical punishment here.
Neeson has a strong and commanding screen presence which is put to good use here, and he brings a laconic style and charm to his performance. He is front and centre for the duration.
The rest of the cast do not fare so well. Farmiga and Wilson played a couple in the Conjuring series, but here they both underused. Farmiga’s character should be more of the femme fatale type beloved of film noir, but she remains pretty much a bland and forgettable character here. Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, as MacCauley’s former boss, and Elizabeth McGovern, as Neeson’s wife, are also largely wasted in fairly thankless roles. Florence Pugh, who delivered a breakout performance in the cold, tough Scottish drama Lady Macbeth, and Shazad Latif (from Star Trek: Discoveries) are also wasted and leave little impression as a couple of passengers on the train.
The script comes from first time writers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blassi, although scribe Ryan Engle, who wrote Non-Stop, was brought in for a rewrite. The film therefore follows the template of that film and some of the action beats fairly slavishly. Betrayal, violence, conspiracy, murder, and a cast of suspicious characters are the essential ingredients of this unashamedly formulaic B-grade action film. There are plenty of blatant holes in the plot, and it is probably best if you leave your brain at the door for this ride.
However, this is dumb, formulaic entertainment, perfect for the summer holidays, and it is rarely dull. But the longer it goes the more preposterous the whole thing becomes, until a bonkers climax derails the film entirely.