In the last decade when Liam Neeson hasn’t been making “Taken” movies chances are good he’s been working with director Jaume Collet-Serra. In the past they’ve teamed for action b-movies “Run All Night,” “Unknown” and “Non-Stop.” This weekend they return to theatres with “The Commuter,” a terror-in-the-tube tale that is a mix of blue-collar action and Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.”
Neeson plays retired NYPD detective turned recently downsized insurance agent Michael MacCauley. “Karen and me,” he says, “we live hand to mouth. We’ve got nothing to fall back on.” With debts mounting, a second mortgage and a son heading off to an expensive school in the fall, MacCauley is presented with an unusual proposition on his commuter train ride home from Manhattan to upstate New York. Mysterious stranger Joanna (Vera Farmiga) offers him $100,000 to do a simple job—find the new passenger on the train from the sea of faces he’s travelled with for the last decade and place a GPS on them. No strings attached. He doesn’t know the person nor will he ever know what happened to the person. “What kind of person are you?” she asks. If he says yes, his financial worries are over. Say no, however, and he risks the safety of everyone on the train and his family.
A better question would be, “What kind of movie is this?“ It’s not exactly fair to call it a thriller because there is very little in the way of actual thrills. After an effective opening montage that shows the drudgery of the 9 to 5 commuter’s life the film settles into very predictable beats as Neeson paces from car to car, desperation growing at every station stop. There’s a twist but as twists go it’s more of a straight line than a real bend in the plot.
This movie should have been called “Stereotypes on a Train.” Who could be the target? Is it the obnoxious businessman? The grizzled commuter? The teen doing an illegal errand for her boyfriend? I didn’t care and you probably won’t either. Things happen, bullets are fired and fists flung but the overly elaborate set-up—why didn’t the evil mastermind, who has absolute control over the situation, plant the GPS herself?—and clichéd dialogue doesn’t leave much room for interesting action.
Neeson certainly knows how to play the everyman with a special set of skills but he’s done it before and better in other movies. Formulaic in the extreme, “The Commuter” is as interesting as taking the same route home day after days for ten years.