If you know me, you know that I work a 9:00-5:00 job, Monday-Friday, January-December. I commute to work, daily, with New York’s subway system, and the commutes blur together into one monotonous trek to and from my destinations. In director Jaume Collet-Serra’s newest collaboration with Liam Neeson The Commuter (2018), that feeling of day-in-day-out routine is prevalent right from the get-go as Neeson embarks on a Hitchcockian adventure trapped in the confines of a commuter rail. This is the fourth (FOURTH!) collaboration between Collet-Serra and Neeson, and Neeson has expressed his desire to retire from action films – he has been doing this for a decade now. If this is truly Neeson’s last turn as an action movie sensation, it will not only be the end of an era for the genre, but The Commuter will be a humble albeit adrenaline-fueled and appropriate send-off for Neeson.
Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman who commutes to and from New York City every day; only this particular day turns bad once Michael is let go from his job just as his son is about to enroll in college. Finances are tight enough for MacCauley’s family because of the 2008 Recession, and this news is devastating. On the way home to tell his wife, MacCauley meets the enigmatic Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who somehow knows Michael’s status as a now-unemployed ex-cop and recruits him to find someone on the train who “doesn’t belong.” If Neeson performs the task, he receives $100,000; if he refuses, his family will perish. Stuck between a rock and hard place, not to mention being literally stuck on a high speed commuter rail, Neeson has no choice but to abide by Joanna’s conditions and search for the passenger who is under the alias “Prynne.
I may be in a minority here, but anytime I hear about a Liam Neeson action film, I can’t help but get giddy. Neeson has mastered the role of the grizzled ex-cop/detective/private investigator and in this film, he actually uses his age to his advantage. It’s certainly convenient that Michael is an ex-cop, but it never detracts from the story or feels too forced. Neeson’s situation is indeed similar to his earlier collaboration with Collet-Serra, Non-Stop (2014), where he is stuck on a plane instead of a train, but Neeson’s Michael feels more wholistic as opposed to the Sherlock Holmes-type in Non-Stop who figures out the mystery almost immediately. Neeson has skills, yes, but he still resonates a degree of helplessness and effectively convinces you to follow him through the train cars to solve this mystery.
While there is subtext and a central theme about corruption and the harsh reality of modern socio-economics, there are moments when it hits you on the head a little too hard. It’s great to see Neeson flip-off a Goldman Sachs employee, don’t get me wrong, but given the circumstances and the immediacy of Neeson’s situation, it seems like an unnecessary pitstop. There is a lot to be said about being the “good cop” and not being rewarded while noticing other, far worse people receive all the merit and money in the world. I almost wish these points were developed a little more, but you aren’t shocked at the temptation of Joanna’s offer – especially as Michael stares at a stack of $100,000 he’s holding in his hands.
For a movie that was advertised as a train-thriller, so to speak, there is not a great deal of action here. While I could have easily walked out the theater scoffing, “A Liam Neeson Actioner with two fight scenes? YAWN,” I felt the opposite. While the action is scarce, it feels rewarding when that tension is finally cut. One fight in particular uses that technique where the camera feels almost alien as it circles and zooms in/out of the characters but it’s all one shot so you sort of shrug it off because, hey, single-take fight scenes are cool. The best example of this outside of The Commuter is the famous church scene from Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). The second Kingsman does it as well, and way worse (not as bad as the Total Recall remake’s attempt), and I think if this trope is going to stay in action movies, it needs a little refinery. It’s great when fight scenes are one take, but it needs to look natural.
After the three previous collaborations between Neeson and Collet-Serra, it’s clear that they have chemistry – but only about 50% of the time. Collaborations such as The Commuter and Non-Stop work on a level that far surpasses their other attempts, Run All Night (2015) and Unknown (2011). Neeson has perfected his character of a grizzled everyman with a moral compass, and with this most recent piece, it is clear why so many action stars have tried to follow in his footsteps and kickstart an adrenaline fueled franchise of their own.
Liam Neeson’s acting and Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction make The Commuter (2018) an intense thrill ride about a man on the ropes who isn’t above committing a crime to save those he loves. While the movie comes to a drag in the third act, it resists from going completely off the rails (pun intended). There are plenty of developments on the train and camera techniques harkening back to the great Alfred Hitchcock that make this arguably Neeson’s best attempt at the action genre since Taken (2008). It’s not as enigmatic or cryptic as a Hitchcock thriller, but it sure is an exhilarating start to 2018 movies.