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“The Commuter” is the fourth pairing of Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra. The two have worked together so many times, I half expected Neeson to turn up in Serra’s last film, the shark-based thriller “The Shallows” …as the shark. Their previous team-ups were all mid-budget thrillers, each with a decent gimmick. The most memorable, preposterous but fun, was “Non-Stop,” with Neeson starring as an alcoholic air marshal trying to solve a murder on an airplane. The duo’s gimmicky traditions continue with “The Commuter,” which is basically “Non-Stop” on a train. But is it worth boarding this return to the claustrophobic, one location thriller? I guess.
Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman who, for ten years, has taken the train from the suburbs into New York City for work. On his way home from a dramatic day, Michael is approached on his usual train by an unusual woman (Vera Farmiga). She, after a bit of flirty banter, offers him $100, 000 for doing a simple task: before the last stop, identify a person on the train, a non-regular going by the name of Prim. That’s it. If he finds this person and doesn’t ask questions like who, why, or what (’s going to happen to them), he gets the money. Of course, there’s more to it and soon, Michael is embroiled in a massive conspiracy. With more questions than answers and bodies beginning to pile up, he must find a way to save himself and the rest of the passengers on the train.
It’s a Hitchcockian setup: the everyman who stumbles into a complex conspiracy. But the movie turns its back on that formula a little by erasing the everyman bit. Michael’s an ex-cop. The change makes sense on a couple of levels. I mean, it is Liam Neeson. With his steely resolve, square jaw, and imposing stature, there’s nothing everyman about him. It’s not like we’d believe he’s just an insurance salesman.
But his ex-cop-ness also allows him to bring a special set of skills to the scenario. It’s too bad, then, that he only uses half of them. His brawn is logical (and believable. At 65, a punch from Neeson still had me flinching in my seat), but his character isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and he ends up making many poor decisions. That does bring a hint of believability and, trust me, the plot grows so absurd that a little logic is needed and appreciated. But he’s just a little too dense sometimes. As a detective, he should be able to detect, yet he doesn’t catch onto a ridiculously obvious red herring in the finale, for example. And, political figures, I’m not “like, really smart,” but I was still a good ten steps ahead of the protagonist. Though, to be fair, much of the audience gasped in surprise at the reveal.
If the plot it Hithcockian, so is Serra’s camerawork (cinematography by Paul Cameron). Like Hitchcock, the camera brings attention to itself. Some of it’s interesting. After a life-altering event, Michael steps outside, lost in thought, misery. The low-slung sun casts his shadow on the ground. People mill about him, but one by one they all disappear, leaving him alone in the frame with just his shadow. Later, a fight scene appears to be done in one long take. Even though it’s not exactly obvious, digital trickery is employed. The effects bring some oomf to a typical bout of fisticuffs, but somehow, the illusion is never as convincing as it should be. Still, I appreciated the ambition.
With Serra behind the scenes and Neeson in front, the duo gives the material their all, trying to make something out of nothing. But they can only do so much. It’s a preposterous, deeply silly, and yeah, stupid movie. At least it’s not stupid in a reprehensible way like another recent thriller I sat through (here’s looking at you “The Foreigner.”), but there’s just something shrug-inducing about the whole endeavor. It’s fine, I guess, especially for a January release, which remains a dumping ground for studios clearing their libraries of dead weight. I don’t feel any animosity for “The Commuter,” I just don’t feel much of anything for it, and I’ll probably forget about it in no time. My pen broke just before the movie began, leaving me unable to take any notes. If, come next December, I look over my notes, look back over the movies I have seen throughout the year, I probably won’t even notice this one’s absence.