Film Review – The Commuter
The best kind of crime thrillers are those that present a moral dilemma and then puts the viewer in the position of having to choose a side. That’s what makes them so interesting – seeing characters in desperate situations having to compromise their beliefs as a means of escape. If you knew that you could have a better life, and all it took was to step over a certain boundary, would you do it? And if you end up taking that step, what would stop you from going further, to the point of no return?
Through the first half of The Commuter (2018), this idea is laid out nice and clearly. Michael (Liam Neeson) is an insurance agent who is in over his head. Bills are piling up, his son is about to go off to college, and to make things worse: he finds out that his job is no longer in need of his services. The only thing constant in his life is the train he commutes on, taking him from home to work and back again, like the hands of a watch in constant rotation.
That is, until he meets a woman on the train (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a unique proposition. She offers him a nice cash reward – enough to set his financial woes at ease – and in return all he has to do is one simple favor: pick up a bag from a passenger who does not belong on the train. He isn’t given any clues, no indication whom the person is or what they may be carrying. It’s up to him to figure out the target and pick up the bag. That’s it, nice and easy, no trouble.
Obviously, this premise is preposterous. But what it does set up (at least through the first half) is the choice that Michael has to make. The direction (Jaume Collet-Serra) and writing (Byron Willinger/Philip de Blasi/Ryan Engle) take the time before Michael boards the train to develop why he would even consider such an offer, and Liam Neeson gives perhaps a stronger performance than we would expect, expressing Michael’s temptation and the fear he has at the thought of letting his family down.
But let’s not get things twisted, this was advertised to be an action/thriller with an emphasis on the action, and that’s precisely what we get as the film switches gears into the second half. The philosophical struggle Michael has is quickly swept away, and the choice is literally made for him (I mean, if he declined, we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we?). From that point on, the narrative devolves into a dumb action plot, tossing in ridiculous twists and turning Liam Neeson into the standard B-movie action hero we’ve seen in the last decade.
I fear that Neeson maybe wading into typecast territory here, if not fully submerged already. He can be an effective, powerful actor when he chooses to be. But the majority of his roles in recent years have provided little for him to explore. Perhaps he just wants to do these fun parts and get paid for doing so, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s just a shame to see an actor of his caliber relegated to the same thing over and over again. Non-Stop (2014) was Taken (2008) on a plane. The Commuter is Taken on a train. What’s next: Taken on a boat?
The further the plot moves forward, the dumber it gets. This is one of those cases where the most absurd event will take place, and yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that it was all “a part of the plan.” The silliness does have its own kind of pleasure though. I had a laugh hearing Michael – so confused over his situation – spit out lines like “What? I don’t understand! What? What?” Killian Scott, who plays one of the train attendants, has a self awareness that allows him to provide some good one liners to help undercut all the seriousness. And much of the fight choreography has a muscular messiness that works in an odd way. One sequence, where Michael fights an assailant in an empty train car – is shot with a herky-jerky camera movement. Blended with noticeably bad CGI effects, and we have the makings of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Paul Cameron’s cinematography sucks much of the life out of the narrative. The visuals are buried under dark grays, blues, and blacks. Everything that isn’t cloaked in darkness looks muddy. Even the daylight scenes appear to have been shot at night. For a picture that aims to entertain, it does not provide much to take in on an aesthetic level. There’s a haziness that repels our gaze instead of inviting it in, as though we’ve walked into a smoky bar or bowling alley.
The Commuter is a schlocky, mildly enjoyable romp that comes and goes without leaving much for us to take away. Whatever interesting ideas it had to begin with is never capitalized on, and thus it ends up being just another generic action picture in a long line of generic action pictures.