No matter how senseless the plots of his movies, Jaume Collet-Serra can direct the hell out of them – and The Commuter is no exception. The Spanish filmmaker, who wickedly used Blake Lively as shark bait in The Shallows, keeps the tension on such a high burner that you won’t realize the whole thing doesn’t add up until after you leave the theater. It teams Collet-Serra with star Liam Neeson for the fourth time, following Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Given the title, you might think The Commuter is merely Taken on a train. Think again.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman who worries hard about how he and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, wasted) can swing college tuition for their son. The old man’s brow furrows mightily as he takes the commuter train from his home in upstate New York to his job in Manhattan. This particular summer day gets worse for “good soldier” Michael when his prick boss fires him and tells him that with soldiers there are always casualties. Afraid to tell his wife, Michael stops for a drink (or three) with his old buddy, Murphy (Patrick Wilson). The two worked together in the past as – wait for it – cops. Which helps to explain how Michael handles himself so well when the fighting starts. OK, maybe “Taken on a train” isn’t so far off the mark.
From the moment Michael hits Grand Central Station and boards the train home, the suspense is relentless. First, a Hitchcock blonde name Joanna, played with seductive shadiness by Vera Farmiga, approaches him with an offer. How would newly unemployed Michael like to pick up a quick 100 grand for doing “one little thing?” That one little thing being, naturally, to use his police profiling skills to ID a mystery passenger known as Prynne and sneak a tracking device on said person. Simple, huh?
Not in this morality tale, in which a moment of weakness leads to betrayal, violence, conspiracy and murder. Think Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which screenwriters Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle crib from shamelessly but without a scintilla of that classic’s style and substance. Michael is denied much ethical complexity: If he doesn’t do as he’s told, his family will die. Still, in a world ruled by greed, it’s hard to resist Neeson’s big line for the Trump era: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to.”
No spoilers about the details, except to say that Neeson – still an action hero to cheer for – carries the day through ax battles, train-car chases and one fight scene in a confined space that just kills. There’s nice work as well from Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul) and Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as fellow passengers. But The Commuter isn’t about acting, it’s about the whooshing excitement of nonstop suspense. Collet-Serra is a B-movie magician, even when the plot strains – or rather, shatters to pieces as someone stomps on the fragments. But in the doldrums of January, the movie pulls out every trick in the suspense-thriller book to keep us grinning at each new absurdity. Silly? You bet. Irresistible? Totally.