Jaume Collet-Serra makes preposterous movies. This isn’t an insult, in fact, it’s more of a compliment to the filmmaker who has delivered some great B-movies over the past decade, from Orphan to Non-Stop, and now, The Commuter. The film establishes everything you need to know as quickly as possible, opening with a variation of morning commutes spliced together, all from the life of Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop turned insurance salesman who just lost his job. It’s a non-stop showcase of everything that our working man protagonist is: middle-class, familiar with everyone on his commute, and such a good man that the man who lets him go punctuates the firing by noting, “Sometimes soldiers end up casualties.”
After fast-forwarding through some poor handheld camerawork and bar conversations between the newly-fired MacCauley and the officers he used to work with (Sam Neill and Patrick Wilson, the latter of whom he’s friendly with), our protagonist meets a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) with a supposedly hypothetical proposition. For $100,000, this man who knows everyone on the train must find the odd man out, getting off before the train reaches a certain stop near the end of the line. Something may happen to them, but he’ll never know. This hypothetical quickly turns real and far more dangerous than MacCauley expects.
The minute Farmiga enters the screen, the script ditches what little interest it seemed to have in being a narrative about how the working man gets fucked over by the big man (with the rare reminder that this is a story about one man against the powers that be) and becomes a showcase for Neeson to dive into action and engage with exactly the kind of stock characters you’ll find in any mystery that range from obnoxious to naive. This, my friends, is the film you came for. Everyone is accustomed to Neeson as this character and he’s more than happy to continue serving it on a silver platter. It’s familiar and it works. Writers Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle raise the stakes every few minutes in the most devil-may-care way, from simply offering cash, to threatening MacCauley’s wife and child, to framing him for murder. Anything can happen on this commute and Collet-Serra exploits this beautifully.
As the stakes get higher, the filmmaking gets more explosive. Collet-Serra navigates tight spaces with a finesse that we’ve seen in his other works, and while there’s not much tension to be found in a script as predictable as this one, it’s the thrills that matter. Take, for instance, a fight scene between MacCauley and a man threatening to kill him that unfolds in a delightful single take (though more than likely made up of composite takes), or a train derailing sequence that tosses bodies and train carts left and right.
Though the film never reaches the creative heights of something like the Fast & Furious series in terms of mass set pieces, The Commuter is happy to exist in its own world of thrills that doesn’t challenge the audience’s suspension of belief too much. If anything, outside of Neeson’s inhuman ability to hang onto a train at all costs, the least believable thing in the film is that any human being would lend a man their cell phone and allow them to leave the vicinity with it. We can only hope that Jaume Collet-Serra will continue to deliver the goods as the years go by.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle; starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jonathan Banks; 105 minutes.
The Commuter is now playing everywhere.