The Commuter is a straight-up action product that will be familiar to viewers of any of the previous collaborations by its star, Liam Neeson, and its director, Jaume Collet-Serra. "Unknown", "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night" sound so tersely generic as to be slyly ironic, and that hint of playing-dumb humor extends to their gleefully absurd thriller mechanics: All three put rather a lot of crafty thought into their empty-headed pleasures. The mechanics of how MacCauley must find the target are overcomplicated and increasingly unbelievable (even for a film like this), with Joanna somehow enjoying nearly godlike powers of surveillance, and the 60-year-old MacCauley undergoing a series of physical challenges that would most likely best a man of 40, let alone an ex-cop who's still in reasonably good shape but has been behind a desk for 10 years (Neeson, to his credit, could do this stuff with his eyes closed but commits to his performance throughout).
So, you probably think that you are about to read a review of a new Liam Neeson action movie. Liam Neeson's character was the reason why the movie was kept on the rails. Early in The Commuter, there is a tracking shot following the length of the train that occasionally stops to focus on particular passengers so we know who to suspect may be Joanna's target. That everyday routine gets shaken up courtesy of Michael's company letting him go, the 60-year-old now faced with an overbearing challenge. But when he gets second thoughts - the more he learns, the more he realizes the "thief" is more of an innocent victim - Joanna informs Michael that his family will pay a nasty penalty if he doesn't cooperate. If he can locate a specific passenger with a mysterious bag somewhere on the train and plant a Global Positioning System on her/him, for reasons she won't reveal but that surely involve murder, then he gets $100,000 for his finder's fee.
Vera Farmiga was a delight to see. "If I identify him, someone on this train is gonna kill him". It becomes a race against time for the one-time officer of the law to sort out the mystery on the train, save his family from an uncertain fate, and punch a few people in the head for good measure. If your answer is no, then "The Commuter" is a tense, mildly gripping, and overall satisfying entry in Neeson's ever-expanding action oeuvre. The film plays out precisely as you expect it to, and the reveals of the mystery offer very little of substance.
New Yorkers, who will either cheer that line or shift uncomfortably, will have a rich pointing out all the ridiculous mistakes that this film makes in its depiction of mass transit.
Unlike other action movies, however, the movie also seems to be attempting some kind of commentary on the human condition. We had a chat with him about the film and what it was like to work with his co-stars. The supporting players are also doing commendable work here, chief among them being Farmiga, who effortlessly enhances the mysterious nature of her antagonist character.
"The Commuter" may be set on the way home after a long, hard day at the office, but this movie feels less like happy hour than work - and uncompensated overtime at that.
Whether we ultimately get that remains to be seen, but we are certainly going to continue seeing Neeson as the hard-edged, action hero he has firmly become.
Like Non-Stop, The Commuter is not without its flaws. Still, The Commuter gives fans of B-level entertainment exactly what they want, and it's hard to fault any film that does that.