It’s all about what you want from a Liam Neeson action flick. That and managing expectations. Will it be great art? Probably not. Will it be fun? Maybe. In this case, it is.
In THE COMMUTER, Neeson is an ordinary ex-cop turned insurance salesman named Mike, living paycheck to paycheck with his beloved wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and equally beloved son (Dean-Charles Chapman). But, being Liam Neeson, he also has a very specific skill set, and when pushed, uses it for truth, justice, and the American way. Alas, in this instance, it’s in a film that hinges on a preposterous plot point, one I can’t reveal without spoiling the film, but which does accomplish its central mission: get Liam to stay on his commuter train past his usual stop, and then use that train to explore the many, many ways it can kill him.
The opening montage, beautifully conceived and edited, shows Mike through a year’s worth of commuting, the ennui of routine and the sparks of the small moments that make up a contented family life. Nothing remarkable until the day Mike is summarily fired after 10 years of loyal service. He commiserates with his ex-partner (Patrick Wilson) from his police days, and runs into another ex-comrade (Sam Neil) that has always rubbed him the wrong way. On the commute home, fretting about how he’s going to break the unemployment news to his family, he’s approached by a personable, almost bubbly, blonde (Vera Farmiga) in striped shoes and jacquard print blouse. Carefully guiding the conversation, she proposes a hypothetical situation to him. Would he do something seemingly inconsequential, a little thing as she puts it, that would affect a stranger in a way he would never know? Would he do it for $100,000? He scoffs. She tells him he has one stop to decide, and if he decides yes, the task is to find the person on the train who doesn’t belong there. The only clues are that this person goes by the name Prynne, is carrying a bag, and will be leaving the train at Cold Harbor. The personable blonde leaves the train with a wave and a smile, certain that an ex-cop such as himself can successfully complete the task.
That’s not the preposterous plot point. In fact, it has a certain intrigue to it.
Of course, Mike accepts he offer, after being mildly non-plussed by how the stranger could have known so much about him, and put off by a demonstration of her leverage. Of course, he discovers that the people that the blonde represents are unsavory. Of course, he will be put in a series of life-and-death situations. This is Liam Neeson.
Mike mentions several times in the course of the film that he is a 60-year-old man, acknowledging what we all know, but, darn, if he can’t take a beating better than a man decades younger. Take it and not only keep coming back for more, but also make us believe that it’s completely reasonable. Sometimes the beatings come from other passengers. Sometimes the beatings come from the train, which barrels along blithely unconcerned that Mike is clinging to its underside, or hanging on to the side for dear life by only one meaty hand.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who collaborated with Neeson in another effective if preposterous train epic in NON-STOP, maintains a breathless pace, and employs camera work that is more sophisticated than the material. Pulled focus, overhead shots, macro lensing all nicely externalizing Mike’s inner struggle, making the visuals commentary rather than mere visual frippery. Couple that with Neeson’s formidable presence, the husky voice tinged with both melancholy and determination as Mike’s adventures take ever more hair-raising turns, and you have a fine popcorn flick, complete with a few zinger tag lines. Kudos, too, for the climactic train crash.
Oh, come one, you knew it was coming.
It’s well done with cars flying in interesting ways as Mike watches in wide-eyed wonder and the other passengers bounce around like so many rattles in a maraca.
All in all, one comes away from THE COMMUTER not so much edified as entertained, forgiving of its faults, enjoying the ongoing serio-comic motif of Mike’s phone going off with a ring that comes to be the audible version of menace, and wondering how Mr. Neeson will be using his specific skill set next.