‘The Commuter’ takes too many familiar turns
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Bryon Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, and Elizabeth McGovern
“The Commuter” – “You have no idea who you are up against.” - Oliver (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a train passenger
Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), a New York City insurance agent who just lost his job, finds himself mired in two seemingly impossible situations. He and his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), are financially struggling, and now, Michael is out of work. Cutting back on expenses and eating ramen noodles seven days a week will not save enough money to cover their mortgage and son’s upcoming tuition to Syracuse University.
(By the way, according to Google, SU tuition is $43,318 a year, and that does not even include books, housing, all-you-can-eat chicken wings, and beer money.)
Next, a mysterious stranger named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him on his commuter train and offers him $100,000, if he will do “one little thing.” The problem? Right away, one can only assume that “one little thing” surely means a complicated, very big thing.
Our hero finds himself in a race against time to find someone on a busy train who stole something from Joanna and placed it in his or her bag. As it turns out, Michael needs to solve this mystery, or Joanna will ensure that people will be hurt. Killed, actually. If this sounds closely familiar to Neeson’s 2014 film “Non-Stop” – which took place on a commercial plane - you are not alone. Not so coincidentally, “The Commuter” director Jaume Collet-Serra also piloted “Non-Stop”, and unfortunately, this story feels terribly recycled and dances in preposterous spaces.
One of these spaces is that Joanna and her associates have eyes and ears everywhere on this train and can track all of Michael’s movements. Is Michael playing ball or is he making overtures for help from his fellow train passengers? Joanna always seems to know, but how?
Does she have cameras and microphones located in every conceivable nook and cranny on this train traveling from Manhattan to Cold Springs? Does she have operatives - on board - intently watching Michael? The film is not entirely clear, but when Joanna knows a random passenger’s phone number and calls him (Andy Nyman) in order to talk to Michael - who does not have his phone - one is simply forced to assume that she possess a magical white pages directory that can tap anyone on this particular train. Ah, eyes and ears, I guess.
In order to keep us guessing, Collet-Serra offers a number of suspicious characters who might have this infamous package in their bag, including an early 20-something woman with a lousy boyfriend, a rough-and-tumble bouncer type, a musician, and more. The intended intrigue partially rests with Michael using deductive reasoning to uncover the covert target, but the film does not offer enough clues for the audience to play along. Instead, Collet-Serra zips and zags from one nondescript, suspicious passenger to the next, as Michael grasps at possibilities to untangle this confounding knot. Rather than build cinematic tension, the constant misdirection and the always watching/always listening, omnipotent antagonists - who don’t seem to play by this universe’s rules – ironically create an aura of passivity for the audience. Well, at least for this audience member.
Then again, moviegoers might find joy when watching Neeson’s Michael work his magic. Neeson is popular in these types of films, and Michael is a very likable character. Collet-Serra and Neeson also deliver a couple crowd-pleasing moments that specifically address the fleeting reach of the “American Dream”, so that does not go unnoticed. It is also nice to notice McGovern’s on-screen appearance, and the only regret is that the script does not give her much to do.
Conversely, the script gives Neeson plenty to do, but most of his work feels emotionally distant because of his aforementioned circumstance on the train. Even though, Michael has no idea who he is up against, it is regrettably easy to determine how this story will ultimately unfold. Maybe, we should just catch the next train, or will Collet-Serra set “The Commuter 2” on a cruise ship?
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.