The Commuter relies on the same old formula of using Liam Neeson to elevate average storytelling. It doesn’t quite work out well enough.
Since his career reinvention as a regular-guy action hero kick-started with Taken (2008), Liam Neeson has made breathing life into average action flicks his stock-in-trade.
He did it as a US Air Marshall in Non-Stop (2014), as a former Irish mob enforcer in Run All Night (2015), and attempts to hack that formula again as an insurance salesman in The Commuter.
Neeson, starring as Michael McCauley, also a former NYPD detective, is again an everyman character. He's your average middle-class guy with very limited means and a routine life.
The montage of Neeson's day-to-day life at the beginning of the movie sets the tone for the sense of familiarity the audience enjoys with him after only a few minutes.
This effectively makes McCauley a sympathetic character that the audience easily roots for because you can already see a crisis brewing from miles away.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra thoughtfully uses the opening of the movie to drop little hints all over the place, like bread crumbs, that are pivotal to the plot later in the movie.
However, despite the fact that The Commuter starts with an impressive narrative that pays proper attention to character depth that's worthy of the viewer's investment, things start to go off the rails when that good work is supposed to matter.
After boarding the same train he's been using for the past 10 years at the end of a particularly bad day, McCauley has an encounter that changes his life.
He's approached by a mysterious charming stranger, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who makes him what appears like a harmless offer that's too good to be true: find a person of interest that's also riding the train and tag them for the sum of $100,000.
With him being already trapped in a financial mess, he takes the offer reluctantly and gets caught in the webs of a conspiracy that pieces together in frustrating bits.
For a movie that's set primarily on a moving train, it's hardly surprising that the plot moves at a very fast pace.
At different points, the movie's plot appears too simple-minded and implausible one minute and then too convoluted and implausible after another few minutes.
While this sometimes adds a nice edge to the movie because you don't really figure everything out at once, it's a chore for the audience to keep up with the plot progression, or what everything meant in the end.
The conspiracy in The Commuter is so complicated you could bet Neeson wishes he could just go back to rescuing his daughter for like the seventh time.
He still somehow has to do a little bit of that too as the lives of his wife and son are threatened if he fails to complete his mission (after how many movies will people learn to stop threatening Liam Neeson's family?)
Once McCauley commences his hunt for the mysterious stranger, paranoia kicks in and everyone on the train that's not a familiar face from his daily commute becomes a suspect.
Collet-Serra makes good use of the limited setting of the train coaches to amp tension as McCauley tries desperately to find the subject while also trying not to cross a moral line with his family's lives under mortal threat.
It doesn't take long for McCauley to take Joanna seriously after a couple of passengers are killed when he tries to disobey her directives with the mysterious woman enjoying an preposterous God-like knowledge of his actions.
Neeson kicks, gets kicked, almost gets thrown out of the train, survives savage attacks, stalks innocent commuters, and almost gets run over as he races against time to find his target.
Neeson's McCauley here is just another variation of the actor's Taken's Bryan Mills character, only with a considerably less “particular set of skills” and a body count that doesn't quite compete.
The character has to dig into his bag of resourcefulness to solve a daunting puzzle while his moral choices clash with his need to protect himself and his family.
Neeson's appeal as an action hero is still on display here and is one of the few saving graces that The Commuter enjoys as he plays McCauley with the sort of boundless but laid back threat that we've come to expect.
He does his best as he's placed in another extraordinary situation that he has to overcome for his safety and that of his loved ones; the personal stakes that always make his journey interesting.
This doesn't necessarily save The Commuter, but that is none of Neeson's fault.
As the mystery of the sought-after commuter starts to unravel, the story’s logic starts to cave in on itself.
While some of it is complicated in a way that some might even consider impressive, the movie delivers its narrative twists in such bare, predictable manners that you see them coming from miles away if you pay the most minimal attention.
The movie even has enough time in its melodramatic ending to nick a Spartacus moment, but this gets a good laugh out of the audience, so it's not all bad.
True to a Neeson caper, The Commuter is definitely not the movie that the audience wants to pin their hopes of sensational storytelling and narrative logic on, but it does provide harmless fun to be quickly forgotten until the 65-year old star takes on something else.
He's taken on a moving plane in Non-Stop and a moving train in The Commuter. What could be next?
A cruise ship? A submarine? Or a space rocket?