Liam Neeson has found a consistent late-career gig as a kick-ass Everyman with an accent.
Liam Neeson has found a consistent late-career gig as a kick-ass Everyman with an accent, and in his latest formula thriller, his typically flawed character is the kind of man that many of us can relate to. Unfortunately and a bit ironically, what once seemed fresh and exciting has now become routine. That routine is one of the themes of The Commuter, but as its characters are jostled out of their routines, its genre tropes remain predictable. Still, this is mid-budget catnip for fans of Neeson’s middle-aged renaissance, and if it’s the least of his films with director Jaume Collet-Serra, the familiar machinery is still well-oiled.
The movie begins with a montage marking the passage of time: we see Michael MacCauley (Neeson) waking up next to his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), day after day. As the seasons change and his son grows up, we see Mike commuting on the same Metro-North route from his suburban home to Grand Central to a job selling insurance. One day, he’s fired, and as he tells his young boss, there are few if any prospects for a 60-year old man near the end of what we learn is his second career.
You see, since this is a Neeson/Collet-Serra joint, Mike is an ex-cop. He can’t bring himself to tell his wife that he’s joined the ranks of the unemployed, so he commiserates over his job loss with Alex (Patrick Wilson), an old partner from the force. It’s a nifty throwaway scene that handles exposition much more deftly than you’d expect from the genre, and it sets up Mike’s ride home, where he meets the intriguing stranger Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who sets bait for the cat-and-mouse game that makes up the body of the film. This well-dressed stranger tells Mike that there’s one person on the train who doesn’t belong; if he can identify that person, he gets 100 thousand dollars; if he can’t, a passenger dies.
If this sounds a lot like Non-Stop, it is, down to specific beats. The formula of the weary man who saves the day despite the odds and significant collateral damage has been reliable for Neeson and Collet-Serra over three previous films, and it’s a treat to see Farmiga and Wilson sort-of-reunited outside the Conjuring cinematic universe (in fact, although the film doesn’t address anything supernatural, its machinations almost make it a stealth entry in that series).
But if The Commuter capitalizes on an audience that’s ready and willing to like Action Neeson no matter the circumstances, it doesn’t give fans anything new. The previous Collet-Serra joint, Run All Night, benefited from a wider expanse and richer characters, but the fellow passengers on this ride home aren’t as vivid as you’d hope from a collaboration that in prior installments featured such casting coups as Bruno Ganz as a hammy ex-Stasi agent (in Unknown) and Nick Nolte as, of all things, Neeson’s brother (in Run All Night).
This leaves us with a familiar set-up and competent execution that lacks a measure of delirium that helped the earlier movies transcend their popcorn niche. You’ve taken more exciting trips with this team, but even if The Commuter makes you want to get off this train, you’ll look forward to whatever they come up with next.