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THE COMMUTER (2018) review

January 14, 2018

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written by: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle
produced by: Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman
directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
rated: PG-13 (for some intense action/violence, and language)
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: January 12, 2018

 

Regardless of quality, Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have apparently enjoyed working together on B-material action movies and “The Commuter” is the fourth and latest outing between the Spanish director and Irish actor. It’s not as awful as 2011’s “Unknown” and not as good as 2014’s “Non-Stop” and 2015’s “Run All Night”, both of which were a step up, yet still substituting brisk camerawork and cheap thrills for sustaining suspense and memorable moments throughout. Of course, any problems with these movies comes down to their screenplays and while there is a solid set-up and interesting premise to “The Commuter”, it just can’t sustain any originality nor can it escape its cycle of unintentional ridiculousness and overall predictability.

The promising set-up takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie, where the three screenwriters establish the routine monotony of insurance man Michael McCauley’s (Neeson) daily commute to Manhattan. Over a montage set to the score of Roque Baños (“Don’t Breathe” and “Evil Dead”), we’re introduced to snippets of relatable family scenes with wife Kathleen (Elizabeth McGovern) and college-bound son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman “Game of Thrones”), some of which borderline on Lifetime nuggets, yet nevertheless portray the ups-and-downs of family life. It’s an interesting approach that shows promise, while informing viewers of the passage of time (different clothes, seasons and weather environments are noticeable) and establishing how financial strains are weighing heavily on the family, especially Michael.

 

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The movie exits the year-long montage (“Groundhog Day” comes to mind) on what will be a particularly challenging day. Despite ten years of hard work at his job and only a few years away from retirement, Michael is let go with the promise of a severance package from Human Resources. Devastated and angry, he starts throwing ’em back early at a nearby Irish pub where he’ll meet his old friend and former NYPD partner, Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) – seriously, his name is Alex Murphy “Robocop” fans – who offers support while reminding the 60 year-old Michael that his wife needs to be told sooner than later.  This is where another old friend, Hawthorne (Sam Neil), who we hear Alex mutter has recently been promoted to Captain, walks in, slapping the backs of lackeys at the side of the room, eliciting an eye-roll response out of Alex.

Now, let’s stop right there. This is a supposed mystery suspense thriller set on a train that is not yet on a train at this point, still in set-up mode, but let’s look at what’s been presented to us. There’s our main character Neeson and then the other two “name actor” faces are Wilson and Neil, who show up as ex-cop friends of Neeson’s character. Right here, it’s hard to not think of the obvious – that corrupt cops are often the “bad guy” and rarely are they introduced as bad guys. So, it stands within reason that either one of these two supporting characters will wind up being our main antagonist. Why does this matter? Well, if you’re thinking of such a theory while watching the movie, that takes you out of it, which is never a good thing.

Convenient to the plot, before Michael boards his train ride home, someone bumps into him and lifts his cell phone, something he doesn’t notice until the doors close. During the crowded ride home that day (from Tarrytown to Grand Central), he sees some of the usual faces such as fatigued family guy, Walt (Jonathan Banks) and talkative Tony (Andy Numan), before it clears enough for him to find a spot to sit down. These supporting characters are meant to eventually be potential suspects in the mystery that will soon unfold, but they’re either too inconsequential or too obvious (not to mention neither are “name actors”).  As he settles down with a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a woman he’s never seen before sits across from him and strikes up conversation (nervously divulging information no one asked, “I’ve never been on a commuter train before”), apologizing, knowing Michael probably just wants to be left to his reading.

 

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This is where the intriguing “Twilight Zone” premise introduces itself. She introduces herself as Joanna (Vera Farmiga), someone who studies people and their surroundings and proceeds to share with Michael (who has now resigned Steinbeck) a hypothetical scenario, followed by a question: What kind of person are you? The scenario is such: Someone on the Metro-North line he’s never met before is currently on the train. If he can identify this person, supposedly named Prynne (a name that will ironically play out later), he will be rewarded with $100,000. What will happen to that person isn’t exactly clear right away, but the fact that easy money is suddenly presented to him, stands out to Michael. And we ask ourselves what we would do and what the catch is and go back to Joanna’s question, wondering what kind of person Michael McCauley is. We just met him, do we really know what type of person he is?

Sadly, “The Commuter” isn’t that psychologically complex (so you can throw the obvious Hitchcock comparisons out the window) and it only uses the moral dilemma as a way to perspire Michael and build up his anxiety as he paces from car to car. After Joanna makes her offer, she leaves it up to Michael and then departs. But we hear from her again when she forcefully lets him know there’s no turning back. Michael hears from her again, using a cell phone he borrows (of course, she has the number), and learns that “her people” are watching his every move and can easily get to Michael’s family – and there you have it, threaten “family” to just about any Liam Neeson character within the past ten years and you’re dead.

Between each stop Michael winds up getting deeper involved in what appears to be a criminal conspiracy with each new set of instructions Joanna gives him. He not only has to locate a specific passenger on the train before it arrives at its final stop, he must also plant a tracking device on this person, which will lead to that person’s imminent death. Now where is Michael’s conscience? Will he still go through with it considering his family is supposedly at stake? At the same time, he has to prevent himself from dying as well.

 

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There’s a scene where he winds up hiding in a compartment under the train while its stopped and then must get out of that situation as the train begins to move. It’s the most nerve-racking scene of the movie, since Michael’s legs could literally be taken off. But the fact that he’s a former cop and he’s Liam Neeson, leaves us never feeling like his life could ever truly be threatened, which kind of reminded me how casting an average-looking, out-of-shaped, middle-aged schlub would be more interesting and realistic to me, instead of somewhat who looks as imposing and capable as Neeson.

The premise of “The Commuter” is the draw, but unfortunately the tension surrounding the execution of that premise barely registers for the next 45 minutes after Farmiga’s Joanna leaves the train. Neeson is typically great, applying the same amount of aplomb and emotional frustration and concern that we’ve seen in previous movies with similar premises. Ultimately, a movie like this is going to rely on the writing and the three screenwriters here fall into cliche dialogue (such as the tired, “You just don’t get it, do you?”), laughable conclusions (there’s an “I am Spartacus” moment that made me cackle and groan at the same time), and situations that call for some jarring CGI where actors clearly gawk at green screens. Sure, there’s an underlying middle finger pointed towards Goldman-Sachs types, but in a movie that asking audiences to thrill to action sequences instead embroil them in a tightly twisted mystery, anything other than closely-shot fist fights is kind of asking too much.

Collet-Serra has shown in the past that he’s great at handling panic and intensity in thrillers, “The Shallows” and “Run All Night” are great examples, but convoluted ambiguity hurts “The Commuter”, especially when it comes to the motivations of the antagonists. We learn very little about Joanna or the people/company she works for, which make a challenge to get invested or concerned with the supposed threat she represents.

As the story nears its end, there is sort of an explanation (that feels more like reused exposition), but nothing that reveals an understanding as to what was truly going on this whole time. That can leave viewers frustrated and letdown, considering all they’ve sat through and seen Neeson endure. While I’m definitely still curious for more thrillers from Collet-Serra and Neeson, be they apart or together yet again, “The Commuter” simply isn’t their best offering. It’s climax feels pointlessly heightened and its plot isn’t as clever or as captivating as it likes to think it is.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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