Being a member of Liam Neeson’s family must be hard: constantly kidnapped and threatened with a variety of sinister fates whilst your husband/father struggles to fight some nefarious corporation on some form of public transport. And in The Commuter, Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest self-serious Keanu-Reeves-In-The-90s type actioner, you still wouldn’t be in luck. Yet, for undemanding audiences, this punch-em-up is deliriously fun, high-speed popcorn fare.
We’re introduced to Neeson’s Michael McCauley by way of an inspired, fantastic opening sequence detailing his early-morning pre-commute journey to the train station: remaining static and painfully ordinary as the seasons and weather change around him. Toss any preconception that The Commuter will have some artistic value out of the window from this point on: things are about to get very melodramatic indeed.
Soon after he’s boarded the express, he finds him face to face with an incredibly chatty Vera Farmiga, who poses a ‘thought experiment’ along the lines of: what if you had to do something that meant nothing to you, but would change the life of someone you don’t know forever? Intrigued, Neeson says that he wouldn’t do it; to which his shady companion replies there would be a reward of $100,000 – $25,000 of which is already in the toilet. She then, amicably, leaves the train with the note that ‘someone doesn’t belong here. Find them’.
From here on in, the plot just gets more and more ridiculous as the film progresses. Pretty soon after the whole ‘find someone and win money’ conceit is established, it’s thrown out of the window and changed to ‘find someone or your family will be killed’. And then pretty soon after that it becomes ‘stop a global commercial conspiracy’; and soon after, a CGI explosion-fest and shootout that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie. By the time the credits roll, there are so many inaccuracies, plot holes, and confusions that it just doesn’t seem to make sense.
Visually it’s not exactly Picasso: standard blockbuster orange/blue/beige tinting permeates the entire affair; script-wise, it’s just one stupidly cheesy line after the next; and acting-wise, the ensemble is so damn melodramatic that it’s hard to keep a straight face throughout. It’s hard to see how people like Collet-Serra are still making movies like this – haven’t we moved on?
Yet, for all its stupidity, there’s a lot to love in The Commuter. It’s a brisk ride at 90 mins, and when you factor in the exposition, that looks more like 75. There are no periods of boredom, no pauses, and no unnecessary scenes: the film just keeps moving, and changing, at thrilling speed. By the time we get to the CGI bonanza, although it’s excessive, it’s also cathartically loud, exciting and tense. Unlike its spiritual relative Murder on the Orient Express, I never found myself bored or willing the film on to its conclusions.
Similarly, the fight sequences here are good: when Neeson enters into a particularly terse exchange involving a left-handed guitar and a fire axe, we feel every punch and impact with surprising force. Despite the PG-13 rating (weirdly translated by the BBFC to 15 here, even with nothing really to justify that decision), and thus the suspicious lack of any injury detail, Collet-Serra does a damn-good job of making action sequences dynamic, fun, and impactful. In the screening I attended, gasps from audience members were commonplace.
Despite all its flaws, I still recommend The Commuter: it’s fast-paced, exciting, and a load of fun. If you’re looking for a stress-free, undemanding night out, then I can think of little better in the cinema at the moment: you might forget about it by the morning, but whilst you’re watching it, this one’s an absolute blast.