Sometimes you’re just in the mood to watch Liam Neeson punch people in the face for a couple of hours.
After the screening of Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter ended – which also served as the film’s premiere here in New York – I was talked into attending the film’s after party for a little bit because a) we were hungry and b) it was on our way home anyway. (This is not something I usually like to do. Standing in a room, under-dressed, with literally hundreds of strangers isn’t always my idea of fun, despite the free cold cuts.) I’m mentioning this for a couple of reasons: The first one is unrelated to anything, but I noticed Liam Neeson’s party guest was Steve Guttenberg and they are obviously good friends and this made me way happier than it should have. And I feel it is my duty to share this information with the public. (Now I kind of want to go back and rewatch High Spirits to look for clues of these two becoming friends.) The second (and my point) is that I saw numerous people go up to Liam Neeson to ask for a selfie. Without hesitation, he’d put his arm around anyone who was asking, then make a fist for the camera as if he was about to save the world again. Despite any talks of retiring from action movies, Liam Neeson obviously knows what types of movies he’s mostly making these days and seems to be having a gosh-darned ball doing them.
The thing I learned about director Jaume Collet-Serra when I interviewed him for The Shallows is that he’s a very intense dude. And he takes himself extremely seriously. I get the sense that he looks at the types of movies he makes – which also include films like Non-Stop, Unknown, and Run All Night – as a specialized artform to themselves and also that he is the best one currently making them. That he is the savant of the desolate release date, action-thriller genre. The crazy thing is, he may be right. And I actually find myself appreciating him more because he does take this all so seriously. He is the perfect director for Liam Neeson action movies.
In the Collet-Serra canon (at the premiere, a studio rep for Lionsgate introduced him as, “a man who only goes by one name, Jaume,” which is the first I’ve heard of this but I guess that tracks) I’d put The Commuter somewhere in the middle. It’s the rare movie of his that kind of gets bogged down later in the film as it tries to explain all plot devices that are set up at the beginning. But even so, it’s still almost guiltily entertaining.
Michael McCauley (Neeson) is having a bad day. He’s a former NYPD cop who now sells life insurance. (Admittedly, he seems pretty good at selling life insurance. There’s one scene in which he’s pitching a family some life insurance and I couldn’t help but think, “Sign me up!”) But, this is the day he loses his job. With his son’s tuition looming and not knowing what to tell his wife, he does what any reasonable person would do and starts drinking at a New York City pub around noon. (This is by far the most realistic part of The Commuter.) On the Metro North back upstate (a few fake stops have been added for dramatic effect; personally I’d love for there to be a Metro North stop on East 86th Street), a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga. who is second billed but is in this movie for about five minutes) propositions Michael with $100,000 in exchange for finding someone on that train who “doesn’t belong” and placing a GPS tracker on their backpack. Soon, when Michael figures out this offer might be a little more ominous than he even first thought, he realizes he doesn’t have much of a choice. The offer then changes to “If you do this we won’t kill your family.” (We’ve learned many times in these movies that you don’t mess with Liam Neeson’s family. I don’t understand why criminals keep doing this.)
The rest of the movie is just an excuse for Liam Neeson to walk up and down the train, stopping every so often to punch people in the face. The problem is the premise is so mysterious, but it’s set almost entirely on a commuter train. So The Commuter has little choice but to just eventually explain all the big conspiracies that are happening away from the train. And this explanation stops this moving train to a halt. I mean literally, the train is stopped dead on the tracks so we can get this lengthy explanation. And the explanation is not surprising. At the beginning of the movie we meet two characters played by famous actors. The movie really wants us to like one of the characters and really dislike the other. So you can probably guess pretty easily the way things will actually turn out.
Regardless, most of The Commuter is a pretty fun ride. And, like I said, maybe you’re having a pretty lousy couple of months and you really just want to watch Liam Neeson punch people in the face for a couple of hours. With The Commuter, you will certainly get just that. And somewhere, right now, Liam Neeson is probably posing for a selfie with his fist held up to the camera
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