It’s seriously difficult to hate on a movie as clueless as The Commuter, because it knows many of us just want to leave our brains at home and turn up at the movies ready to squeal at guns and explosions (must be why Blade Runner 2049 was found dead at the box office). But surely even the most gleeful action fan has to have standards, no? The problem with The Commuter (one it shares with its carbon-copy predecessor Non-Stop) is that it begins with a thrilling premise and then proceeds to abandon all notion of coherence till it eventually flies off the rails, which it literally does.
Liam Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an insurance salesman who for some reason has to remind us a gazillion times that he’s sixty and on the verge of retirement, as if possessing the face of a weathered Liam Neeson wasn’t enough. Poor Michael is fired as the movie begins and despairs of having to break the news to his upbeat wife (Elizabeth McGovern). As luck would have it, he is approached by a random seductress (Vera Farmiga) on the commute home with a life-saving proposal: identify a character on the train named Prin before Prin disembarks and $100,000 is his. How convenient.
But exactly how is Michael, an average joe insurance salesman with a winning smile and a mortgage, supposed to possess the skills to pick one person out of a hundred? Easy: make him a former police officer, of course. Now, not only can he behave like a detective silently analysing his fellow passengers without looking like a complete psycho (I’m reminded of Leslie Nielsen frisking baseball players in The Naked Gun), he can also perform all the necessary Liam Neeson Action Movie Nonsense, such as leaping from carriage to carriage like an elderly Indiana Jones. Oh the skills police academy will teach you.
Who is this Prin anyway? That I will leave for you to discover. What I can tell you is that Michael has stumbled into the playground of some seriously dangerous people, a kind of Illuminati organisation that apparently “sees everything”, yes even what’s happening on a speeding train they’re not on. For reasons made explicit but not comprehensible, they want Prin dead, and are able to observe every little thing Michael does or says, including but not limited to scribbling a secret note under a table. Either one of the passengers is their spy, they’ve recruited Morpheus, or they’re god.
The Commuter is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose films (mostly action) tend to veer precariously toward the unbelievable. Not for a moment was I convinced a real shark would behave the way the shark in The Shallows behaved, and not for a moment was I convinced Liam Neeson could smash a dude in the face with a Stratocaster and have him get right back up to stay in the fight. If the guitar’s not going to knock him dead with one blow, why have the guitar at all?
But what a guy Michael is. By the end, not only does he uncover a massive conspiracy and survive one of the most horrific train derailments in modern history, he also manages to return his wife’s confiscated wedding ring, save a punk teenager from her douchebag boyfriend, spark a romance between a ticket attendant and a nurse, and I’d be damned if he didn’t cure cancer as well.