Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, and Patrick Wilson
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
87 minutes (12) 2018
Studio Canal Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st May]
Review by Christopher Geary
Ever since French movie Taken (2008) jump-started mature British actor Liam Neeson’s career as a contemporary action-hero, his intelligent performances have graced enough premier thrillers to match even diverse Hollywood giants like Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone. After working with the Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra on Unknown (2011) Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015), Neeson continues their winning international collaboration with The Commuter, yet another modern noir exemplar.
After losing his insurance-company job, family man Michael MacCauley is on a homeward train where he meets a mysterious blonde (Vera Farmiga, Orphan, Source Code, TV show Bates Motel), who offers him a chance to learn what kind of person he is. Is this Die Hard on a runaway train, again? At first, no, because this feels like David Fincher’s The Game (1997), as Michael’s increasingly weird behaviour in his efforts to spot a suspect actually makes him seem creepy to other passengers. After a fight breaks out, a tricky situation escalates to kidnapping reports and more dangerous criminality when Michael is expected to ‘condemn a stranger to an unknown fate’. Within lines of interrogative reasoning (Who doesn’t belong? “Why are you going to Cold Spring? What’s in the bag?”), and the coolly deceptive detective story unfolding with care and attention to details, The Commuter is a thriller about an unbiased hero whose charming warmth belies his grim determination to stop the bad guys.
The Commuter also owes a substantial debt to the genre classic Narrow Margin (original 1952, remake 1990), but it’s gifted with a bunch of sharply etched characters, displacing their obvious roles playing stereotypes on a metro train journey. An intriguing conspiracy scenario with a fast series of hair-raising stunts, a blistering climax with excellent special effects, an engagingly witty ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment of irregular group heroism, and then an admirable finish with a lesson in strong morality, add many features to a fairly familiar product.
Neeson’s previous movies with director Collet-Serra need further mention here. Unknown concerns a bio-tech conference in Berlin. After a car accident, Neeson’s character, Harris, wakes up from four-day coma. Trauma worsens with identity crisis and an imposter living his with Harris’ wife Liz. Essentially a spy thriller, with a ‘Jason Bourne’ vibe and plenty of chase sequences, Unknown benefits, like many espionage movies set in Germany’s once-divided city, from Berlin itself also being a character in the story. Basically, a tale like Die Hard on a plane, Non-Stop has Neeson portray a lazily drunken air marshal who is placed under extreme and extraordinary pressures to find a terrorist and a bomb on a passenger jet. Run All Night is the story of an embittered mafia thug who finally finds redemption in his own tragic death.
Of course, these individual movies aren’t intended to be a genre franchise and yet they’re all action productions imbued with thematic links about the deconstruction and rebuilding of heroes, in plots with compelling character-arcs that are centred on, if not locked into, connections between the ambitious director and busy star, who obviously developed an intuitive and progressive ‘short-hand’ for their work together. Unknown has an assassin with amnesia of his mission and target who starts a new life. Non-Stop concerns a deeply troubled policeman who’s failing everybody in his life, but he eventually redeems himself. Run All Night shows how a mafia hit-man loyalties to his son and to his best friend in the mob prove to be incompatible with life, in a family, or otherwise.
The Commuter is about an ex-cop who, eventually, returns to detective work because he can, quite instinctively, do the job better than most. Neeson’s different roles in all these intelligent movies are never just standard actioner heroes. Skilfully, the director and star shape their assorted stories of brief heroism into character studies in extremis where the hero emerges from a background of regrets or professional failure. In these movies, the iconic cities (Berlin, New York), a plane, and a train, are sundry containers like a crucible or a chrysalis for the much anticipated surfacing of an astutely moral force for good, but not perfection, that awakens in a decidedly flawed character.
Although Neeson’s interview for The Commuter jokingly suggests a movie filmed entirely in a car might well be a follow-up project for him, and director Collet-Serra, a supporting character’s parting line in The Commuter’s epilogue says it all: “Next time, I’m taking the bus.”