Liam Neeson continues his late career reinvention as an action star with The Commuter, his fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. The Commuter represents the third installment in Neeson and Collet-Serra’s planes (Non-Stop), trains (Commuter), and automobiles (Run All Night) trilogy. For the most part, The Commuter is a lot like Neeson and Collet-Serra’s best collaboration, Non-Stop, with the main difference being the form of transportation where the action takes place. There’s not much new happening in the passenger cars of The Commuter, but for two-thirds of its running time it’s a gleefully absurd piece of B-movie action until the final act where the film flies off the rails into a boring and predictable finale where the clichés pile upon one another until you’re mercifully presented with the end credits.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an insurance salesman who takes the train into the city for work. We’re presented with his routine through a montage of mornings interacting with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman) before boarding his train where he’s greeted with the same set of familiar faces. Michael is let go from his job. His severance package only includes health insurance, which leaves him in a bind since he has two mortgages and his son is preparing to leave for college. It’s revealed that Michael used to be a cop when he gets some drinks with his former partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson, and not RoboCop), lamenting his recent hardships. Boarding the train home, Michael is confronted by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She claims to study human behavior and presents Michael with an ethical dilemma: If provided $100,000 ($25,000 upfront and $75,000 upon completion), would he seek out someone who doesn’t belong on the train and place a GPS tracker on their bag. Desperate, Michael takes the money and is presented with a dilemma where he has to find someone calling themselves Prynne, who is set to exit the train in a few stops and is going to be a material witness in a vast conspiracy. Michael is dragged into a deadly game of deciet where he’s unable to trust anyone and any attempts to seek help will put his family in danger.
When The Commuter is working well in the early going, it’s because Collet-Serra is populating the train with interesting characters with shady backgrounds and questionable motives. There are the conductors (Colin McFarlane and Adam Nagaitis) who provide a bit of comedic relief. Then there are the fellow regular commuters who lend a bit of familiarity for Neeson’s MacCauley, including characters played by Jonathan Banks and Andy Nyman. Of course, there are the strangers on the train, all of whom are suspicious; the standouts include Lady Macbeth breakout star Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, and Roland Møller. During the first two-thirds of the movie when it’s relishing in B-movie thrills, the screenplay Byron Willinger & Phillip de Blasi and Ryan Engle works because the central mystery is driving the action forward, and a number of complications that get in the way of Neeson’s MacCauley from piecing together the clues.
Jaume Collet-Serra brings a visual verve and intensity to the hand-to-hand fights that take place while train is in motion. His camera dances along with whomever has the unfortunate task of battling Neeson, often splicing together multiple shots to present the illusion of an action sequence in a single shot. Everything that happens in The Commuter is wildly absurd but it retains a level of suspense and fun that maintains a certain level of the suspension of disbelief.
As The Commuter races towards its finale, it completely derails. The action and suspense vanishes in a flash as Collet-Serra opts to follow the film’s splashy CGI action crescendo followed by lengthy moments filled with expository dialogue and reveals that were painfully obvious. Everything that worked suddenly vanishes as the film strains to try and make sense of the film’s central mystery, which wasn’t that important to begin with. Where The Commuter was filled with moments of delightful absurdity give way to moments of unintentional hilarity. Just when you think the conclusion can’t get dumber and more obvious, it gets even dumber and more obvious.
Even though The Commuter features an incredibly clunky third act, I was still entertained for much of the film’s running time. Fans of Liam Neeson’s action fare won’t be disappointed as he still brings that grizzled Irish brogue to his hard luck ex-cop pushed into strenuous circumstances. Despite how much I was entertained for a sizable portion of the film, I have to admit I was disappointed that Jaume Collet-Serra couldn’t build upon his stellar work in The Shallows and maintain it for an entire film. The Commuter is so close to being a really fun piece of B-movie action that it pains me to say that it’s merely adequate.