THE COMMUTER (2018)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
THE COMMUTER (2018) is the newest venue for star Liam Neeson (STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENANCE, 1999, SCHINDLER’S LIST, 1993) who has been cranking out one action film after another, such as the TAKEN series (2008 – 2014), RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), UNKNOWN (2011) and NON-STOP (2014), many of these while in his sixties when those of his ilk would begin taking on slower, more introspective roles. When I saw the trailer for THE COMMUTER, it looked a lot like NON-STOP, except moving from airplane to train. And there are a lot of similarities: an everyman caught in the midst of a web of deceit and set up to be the fall guy for someone’s grand schemes. Because of this, I went into the film with some bias, expecting more of the same. Despite the similarities, THE COMMUTER still stands on its own, with some unique twists, and overall it’s a very engaging and intense thriller from director Jaume Collet-Serra (UNKNOWN, 2011, ORPHAN, 2009 and, not surprisingly, NON-STOP). Written by newcomers (this is their first feature film) Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi (with some help from NON-STOP screenwriter Ryan Engle), THE COMMUTER kept me glued to the screen as one hurdle after another is thrown at everyman Michael McCauley (Neeson), wondering how in the world he was going to get out of his predicament.
Though it’s not perfect, it fits in well with the genre and the overall effect is a tight and tense thriller, though with very few original elements in plot.
In brief, McCauley has taken the commuter train between the Burroughs and New York City every day for ten years (as shown very cleverly, and with some fantastic visual effects in the opening credit sequence), having retired as a police officer and now doing well as an insurance salesman. Every morning he spends time with his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern of the DOWNTON ABBY TV Series, underused here except as motivation for her husband’s actions) and college-bound son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman, the last man to hold the Iron Throne – so far – in the GAME OF THRONES TV Series), is dropped off at the station, and amid small talk with his fellow commuters, travels to work.
On this day, Michael is bestowed the usual benefit modern corporations hand out to their aging employees: a pink slip, only in this case with no severance pay. Facing debt at home and his son’s upcoming college bills, he has a few drinks with his old partner Alex (Patrick Wilson – THE CONURING, 2013, INSIDIOUS, 2010) before getting back on the train and wondering how he’s going to tell his wife he no longer has a job. Enter mysterious stranger Joanna, who strikes up a conversation and offers him a large sum of money to find someone on the train who does not belong, someone going by the name Prynne. Prynne has a bag containing something they’ve stolen, at least according to Joanna. In return, Michael is given ten thousand dollars hidden in one of the train’s bathrooms, with a promise of more to come if he succeeds in his mission.
This request seemed a little odd to me. These mysterious bad guys have eyes everywhere on the train, and in some cases must have hidden cameras, since they know Michael’s every move at the moment he does them. I would have assumed they’d find a less complicated way of finding this mysterious person. When Michael resists, they pull out the big incentive—they will kill his wife and son if he doesn’t comply.
I liked the character of Joanna. She appears very little on screen during the film, mostly over the phone—various phones they somehow know the numbers to depending on whom Michael is sitting near. Played with quiet menace by Vera Farmiga (THE CONJURING, 2013, BATES MOTEL TV Series), she is a good antagonist for our hapless everyman, if not a little omniscient. As the film goes on, one wonders how wide-reaching and all-seeing her organization is, though this is never truly explained.
THE COMMUTER has a few dangling questions like this which one needs to set aside, hoping they are wrapped up in the end. As the film comes to its climactic end, it seems most of them will never be answered, though there is a short epilogue in which some are, even if posed more as theory than anything else. Still, it was a good way to tie up some of the loose ends.
Coming into the theater to watch THE COMMUTER, the viewer wants, first and foremost, an action-packed thriller and this is what they will get. As Michael is resigned to his task, he begins detective work to weed out, from the hundreds of commuters, who might be the person his sudden employers are looking for. This part of the script is clever and enjoyable to watch, like a good Sherlock-ian mystery unfolding one discovered clue at a time. Early in the film we are given glimpses of those who end up making the final list of suspects, but very quickly we, and our main character, understand that the person he is looking for might not have done anything wrong and is, in fact, in terrible danger.
As the train roars out of the city towards the last stop (before which our hero must complete his task, or his family will die), I wondered how he was going to get out of this. I suppose that’s the sign of a good thriller, which must instill a desperate urgency in the viewer to see the conflict resolved, but never be quite certain how the protagonist will accomplish it.
Neeson is just the actor to bring us along for the ride. Say what you will about the cookie-cutter action films he’s done—and one wonders if these are mostly to pay the bills and free the actor to do the occasional dramatic or fun role (including voicing a few animated characters) —Liam Neeson has a unique and powerful presence. When he is on the screen (pretty much every second of this film), the viewer is riveted. With his rugged, handsome persona and whisky-rough Irish brogue, the man still makes women swoon and men want to be on his side, hence his apparent lack of unemployment. Another impressive aspect of his performance is, regardless of how many films he has made, when the story plays out, one does not feel like they are watching Liam Neeson playing a character, but watching the character himself. It’s what actors strive for, and he manages to do it, even in roles that seem to bleed into each other over time.
Some technical details of this movie struck me as quite good. Kudos to the sound department. I looked for one person, such as a sound editor, to call out here, but there was simply a decent-sized team of foley, recording, and mixing engineers that, as a whole, added greatly to the tense effects of the film. More so than the soundtrack, which was the standard sweeping score one hears in these films but otherwise, mostly forgettable. But the sound: from the constant clicking of the wheels on the tracks to Michael’s feet flailing against pea stones under the train, to the slight but constant pings and knocks of cables and chains, the overall effect, especially in a theater, was wonderfully immersive. As well, the action scenes were well-shot pieces with enjoyable fight sequences. I’ve noticed and appreciated in recent films that fights between characters have taken on a more realistic air to them, more messy and scrabbly than the over-choreographed battles of old. The movie takes place inside the train throughout, but when effects are needed outside miniatures and CGI are used effectively (only effectively, nothing eye-popping).
THE COMMUTER is chock full of minor characters, being a film about a train full of people, and the small group of suspects Michael must weed through do a decent job in the roles they’re given. Mostly unknowns, they to add a dose of realism to the movie. I was shocked to discover one minor character, police Captain Hawthorne, was played by veteran actor Sam Neill (JURRASIC PARK and THE PIANO, both 1993). I did not recognize him and though he had only a few lines, he was good with them.
In the end, as with all thrillers, there’s a climax and a revelation about players in this cat and mouse game, and the disclosure that characters one might think are bad were actually okay folks. Here, I feel, the script fell a little flat. Certain statements are made in scene which felt out of place, but were pivotal in flushing out a secret baddie who says the wrong thing and thus exposes their sinister leanings. Though we always want a happy ending, some moments (you’ll know what they are if you see them) are just a tad too silly.
THE COMMUTER was exactly what it set out to be, a fast-paced thriller with plenty of action and thrills to satisfy viewers. Neeson’s performance is stellar as always. It’s a safe film, taking no risks with the story or characters outside of what we’ve seen in the past. Even so, if you like your action movies fast and engaging with everyman Liam Neeson fighting for justice, this is a good one to check out, especially in the theaters, to appreciate the work of those sound folks.
As a thriller, I give it two and a half knives (if I had to compare it to, say, this year’s Oscar contenders, I might slip a knife out of the pile, but honestly, director Collet-Serra wasn’t trying to make one of those).
© Copyright 2018 by Daniel G. Keohane
Dan Keohane gives THE COMMUTER~two and a half knives.