Back in 2008, Liam Neeson went full ‘beast mode’ playing Bryan Mills in the action thriller Taken. He reinvented himself as a middle-aged father, loving husband, and retired CIA agent with a passion for brutally merking bad guys without hesitation. Ten years later, Neeson’s still in the ass-kicking business, and why not? After all he is one of the founding members of the geri-action genre and clearly age is just a number… And his age is slowly catching up with his on-screen bodycount. But there’s no shame in that, the Irishman’s right-hook is still as strong as ever.
The Commuter is the fourth team-up between Neeson and Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, with their second outing being the similarly themed transportation nightmare on a plane Non-Stop (2014). But this time around, the boys are playing with a locomotive train-set in upstate New York, and of course mayhem ensues.
The setup is simple. Ex-cop Michael MacCauley (Neeson) has the worst day of his life. Out of the blue, he’s fired from his life insurance job, five years from retirement, with a college-aged son, and final notice mortgage debts hidden from his wife. Mike does what any of us would do, head to a dodgy cop bar, and seek solace at the bottom of a pint glass. While being consoled by his old partner, Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), Mike laments he’s a sixty year old man with zero prospects. But all Murph can see is a good man and he offers to help out Mac for old times’ sake. For Mike, Irish pride and hardheadedness kills any chance of him escaping his inevitable financial ruin.
The twist is standard. On Mike’s long train ride back home, full of regular commuters and single ticket holders alike, he is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga). With a carefully worded moral conundrum, which is basically a hypothetical offer, Mike will get a big bag of cash to hunt down a stranger on the train, and plant a GPS tracker on them. Naturally, Mike declines. But later, his curiosity and desperation gets the better of him and he finds a paper bag stuffed full of cash in a carriage toilet. The offer is real, and the game is afoot.
What follows is like a Subway sandwich of the Murder On The Orient Express (2017) with slices of Snake Eyes (1998) and a light dressing of Passenger 57 (1992). Not surprising, really. Three writers, Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi & Ryan Engle are all credited on the screenplay, and probably a few more penmen polished up the script as well. And it’s clear, they all love the action thriller genre, and Penguin Classics, as the story’s clues are often introduced by characters with their heads buried in a paperback book as well read as “Lord of the Flies” and “The Scarlet Letter”. It’s a fun and learned touch, but maybe a little outdated in the era of the tablet and smart phone.
And that feeling of datedness is something the film just can’t shake. Maybe, it’s because the train setting is just too familiar. Or maybe, it’s because the twists and turns are about as fresh as a freight train hauling LoveFilm’s old action thriller DVDs to an industrial-sized landfill site. That being said, Collet-Serra’s direction is kinetic and at times loud and bruising, with a particular highlight being Mike smacking the snot out of a hitman with a stratocaster guitar. Yes, dumb. But lots of fun.
As for Neeson, the hangdog and steely-eyed Mike, could have easily been Bryan Mills’s Irish cousin in an off the peg suit. A decade later, he’s still a commanding on-screen presence and enjoyable to watch. And the unlikely standard-bearer for grizzled action men everywhere. Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis would have got the call ten or fifteen years ago, or maybe they got the call today, but were just too busy squabbling…
For all the film’s pulpy musings on the nature of morality, I feel it raises a more important question “What’s the difference between lazy and formulaic?”. Without doubt, it is commitment. And The Commuter fully commits to a train ride into a bygone era of conspiracy, hard men and vehicular chaos.