Commuter, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/16/18 04:54:26
I've long repeated the adage that you can make any thriller something like 20% better by setting it on a train, but "The Commuter" challenges that rule in the strongest manner possible. Maybe it doesn't apply to stories that can only take place on a train, or maybe this story would be even worse transplanted to a stationary location, but either way, it's a remarkably stupid movie that wastes a lot of time before it even has a chance to become the entertaining sort of silly.It gives us Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), a sixty-year-old former detective who has been selling insurance for the past ten years, taking the train into New York from Tarrytown every day, filling his time by reading along with his son's assignments for English class. At least, until today, when he's fired and can't quite bring himself to tell his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) right away, meeting his former partner Alex (Patrick Wilson) for a few drinks before taking his normal 6:22 home. That's when he meets Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who tells him that there is twenty-five thousand dollars hidden in the bathroom and another seventy-five in it for him if he can find someone headed for Cold Springs - not a regular - code-named "Prin" and put a location tag on their bag. Michael soon figures out that this group means to tag Prin for assassination, but if the money is the carrot, a threat against his family is the stick, and there are people on the train watching to make sure he complies.
This is a ridiculously complicated plan, which is not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself, but it's a complicated plan that runs far too obvious a risk of failure - what if Michael just can't figure out who the mystery person is? - and which doesn't really give anybody enough to do. Heck, even without Michael having a phone of his own, it could probably be thwarted by him walking from car to car and loudly announcing what's going on. Instead, he walks from car to car, acts kind of squirrely, does much less effective things that backfire, but never really seems to be solving a puzzle, but even getting him to do that requires a conspiracy with enough manpower on and off the train to make Michael utterly unnecessary. It also creates a bad rhythm for the movie - with stops every four minutes in the city and just slightly less often as the train moves to the suburbs, there's a stop-and-go pace that never lets the film build up any sort of momentum.
It improves a bit as the movie and the train near the end of their lines; once the need for the action to be kind of hidden goes by the wayside, the writers and director Jaume Collet-Serra are able to lurch between the two seemingly polar opposite genres of crazy train-based action and the sort of Agatha Christie mystery that ends with Hercule Poirot getting everyone to sit down to dinner so that he can draw the killer out (bad luck for this to come out so close to a pretty decent version of Murder on the Orient Express). When Collet-Serra finally gets to cut loose and have Neeson smack someone around with an unlikely weapon, blow stuff up on the train and necessitate more railroad mayhem than the picture really has a visual effects budget for (the CGI is rough), and play out a finale that does little twists on inevitable things, The Commuter doesn't actually get good, but it at least starts to deliver something close to what the audience paid for. Collet-Serra isn't really a guy to elevate a weak script, but he tends to get better the more loopy it is, and he shoots a pretty good action scene. He's one more comfortable ground when he's able to go over the top.
He's a frequent collaborator with Liam Neeson, and while "Liam Neeson, action hero" has never really made sense, the film would probably collapse with a lesser actor; he's spent much of the past decade or so lending gravitas to action movies that don't really deserve it, and he does that just well enough here to get the audience a little bit invested. It's unfortunate that he leaves a lot of the bigger names in the cast behind as the train heads out - it seems like the filmmakers would have found a way to make Vera Farmiga's smiling, taunting adversary something more than a voice on various phones after they got her in the cast, and though it's pretty much inevitable that Murphy and his captain will find a way to show up later because there's no point in casting Sam Neill for nothing more than a brief and inconsequential cameo, the movie could really have used more Sam Neill. The passengers on the train are fine, but never interesting enough to make a good mystery."The Commuter" is probably not the worst of Neeson's late-career action movies (those "Taken" sequels are tough to beat), but it's easily the flabbiest and most back-loaded, a potentially neat idea that never got refined into an actual story. As much as he and Collet-Serra have been a reliable-enough team, they can't elevate this mess to the level of good pulp.
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