One of the oddest trends in recent film history has been the emergence of Liam Neeson as an action star. After tracking down Russian human smugglers holding his daughter hostage in 2008’s Taken (and proceeding to beat them to a pulp on a yacht), Neeson then went back to the well for two more Taken sequels, along with similar action roles in Unknown and Non-Stop (both directred by Jaume Collet-Serra), not to mention The Grey, where he single-handedly battled a pack of wolves.
The Commuter once again reunites Nesson with Collet-Serra, for what is purported to be their final collaboration. With Neeson now 65-years-old, it makes sense that he would finally want to stop taking on these ridiculous action roles, but The Commuter smartly uses Neeson’s age as an asset, which makes (most of) what eventually plays out all the more comprehensible.
Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman living in the suburbs with his wife (the great Elizabeth McGovern) and his teenage son (Dean-Charles Chapman). Through an early montage, we see how Michael’s days play out. He wakes up early every morning to commute to his job in the city by train, with his wife dropping him off at the station. We learn that their finances are tight, and are about to get even tighter with their son applying for college.
One morning, Michael shows up to work and is summarily laid-off by a superior decades younger than him. After meeting with his former cop partner (Patrick Wilson) for a round of drinks nearby, Michael gets on his usual train home to break the news to his wife. On the train he encounters a woman sitting next to him who offers up a Hitchcockian scenario — find the person who doesn’t belong on the train, and he’ll be rewarded with $100,000. If he fails, his family will die.
As Michael frantically begins searching throughout the train cars, he quickly realizes the power of the forces he is contending with. Caught in the cogs of a huge conspiracy, he has to track down this mystery passenger before the train reaches a certain stop, which leads to all sorts of increasingly unlikely action set pieces. It’s very convenient that Michael was once a cop before giving up the life for the white-collar world, but even 65-year-old cops would have trouble crawling around the undercarriage of speeding trains or engaging in confined hand-to-hand combat with someone 1/3 their age.
For all the general silliness of the plot, Collet-Serra knows how to maintain suspense, and the first hour of The Commuter flies by on white-knuckle tension and rapid-fire editing. The arrangement is complicated enough to ensure plenty of twists and turns as Michael is forced to interrogate the confused train passengers who have no inkling of what Michael is up against (save for one that is), and the ticking-clock scenario keeps things moving briskly along.
Apart from the action, The Commuter also wants to say something about the plight of the 1% who struggle to abide by the rules that the wealthy and powerful seem to flout with no consequence. That angle works best when it’s an understated motivation for Michael, but loses steam when Collet-Serra tries to use it to rile up the audience (like when Michael tells off a douchey Goldman Sachs passenger).
Before things literally and figuratively go off the rails in the final act, The Commuter manages to remain an exciting if far-fetched thriller, the sort of mid-level action flick that seemed to open every week in the early 90’s, but that has fallen almost completely off the radar these days. If this is indeed Neeson’s final round as a grizzled action hero (not likely), there are worse ways to go out.