Cinematic Releases: The Commuter (2018) - Reviewed

A decade or so ago, if I were to have described a movie to someone by saying “you know, it’s a Liam Neeson movie,” it would mean something totally different than what that phrase implies these days. Liam Neeson used to be known for biopics and prestige pictures like Schindler’s List or Kinsey. But ever since Taken became a hit in 2009, Neeson has become synonymous with action thrillers. As he hits his mid-sixties, he has become a legitimate action star. And The Commuter is certainly a Liam Neeson movie. 

Neeson is Michael MacCauley, happily married and with a son about to start college. He and his wife need money but, at the film’s beginning, he is fired from his job as an insurance salesman. He gets on the train for his normal commute home and is approached by a woman, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who proposes a hypothetical scenario to him: if he were asked to do something small that would have a profound effect on a stranger on the train, but would have no effect on him, would he do it? And what if doing this tiny thing would earn him $100,000? He quickly realizes the scenario is not so hypothetical. And that saying no is not an option. 

Much of the rest of The Commuter is Neeson walking back and forth on the commuter train, trying to figure out a solution to his predicament. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is its use of space. For the purposes of this story, the train is an enclosed space. Our protagonist is not allowed to leave the train, so his only options are to move forward or backward from car to car. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who has also directed the Liam Neeson movies Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night) utilizes the train cars without ever making them feel cramped. Neeson really has no trouble moving back and forth. His freedom of movement allows him to easily interact with the other train passengers which helps advance the story’s drama. 

However, a more claustrophobic feel may have added some much needed tension to the film. I never really got the feeling that the space was closing in on him so, for much of The Commuter, the only real suspense comes from the limited time he has to find this passenger before they reach their stop. Though I suppose Neeson has to keep moving to keep up with the film’s frantic pace. It is just as well. People go see a Liam Neeson movie to see him in action. I am not sure his previous films would have been as successful if they were called Sit for A While or Walk Slowly All Night

And he is certainly in action here. In addition to his near constant movement, he even has a few fight scenes on the train. The choreography of these scenes is probably the best overall usage of the limited space since there is no easy way for Neeson or his opponent to get away from each other. Neeson sells the desperation in those moments well. He is a good actor and there is no way any viewer could take any of this ridiculousness even halfway seriously without him. Actually, the cast is filled with quality actors such as Vera Farmiga as the mystery woman, Jonathan Banks as a friendly passenger, Patrick Wilson as a cop friend of MacCauley’s and Sam Neill as a police captain. Their very presence is enough to lift The Commuter up to the level of a mildly enjoyably diversion. 

Get off my Train!

If you have seen the trailers or commercials, The Commuter is exactly what it appears to be: an action movie with a silly plot that allows Liam Neeson to do Liam Neeson things for an hour and forty-five minutes. It was okay. It kept me reasonably entertained and the pace was fast enough that the plot-holes and overall absurdity did not become apparent until after the movie was over. After all, you know, it’s a Liam Neeson movie. 

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-Ben Pivoz