One little thing.
If the timeline is to be believed, the fourth meet-up between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson entitled The Commuter was the result of the latter rather than the former. Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi‘s story went through the hands of at least two other stewards as well as a rewrite by Ryan Engle before finally going in front of the cameras. So one could hypothesize Collet-Serra was brought in as someone familiar with the genre, tropes, and especially the lead actor to bring things home. I want to believe this because the script is very similar to the aforementioned duo’s second collaboration Non-Stop and I’d hate to think the director was intentionally typecasting himself—especially after going much smaller but just as claustrophobic with The Shallows.
It’s one thing to know and play to your strengths and another to intentionally stunt your growth. This is the difference between having fun and cashing in and thankfully The Commuter feels like the first. That fun is crucial to the success of a January film such as this because audiences aren’t going in with the hopes of receiving anything but a two-hour reprieve from the chaos of their own lives. We buy our ticket for this fare to get caught up in the mystery, excited by the thrills, and maybe even surprised by a perfectly-timed display of shock and awe to change the internal power dynamic on its head. Collet-Serra has made a career out of finding projects that do all three and this is no exception.
So he introduces his everyman in Michael MacCauley (Neeson) through an inspired credit sequence of daily routine blended together in a collage of static action and fluid moods. Mike is an insurance salesman, his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) a real estate agent, and their son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) a soon-to-be high school graduate preparing for college. The family makes enough money to afford a very nice life and house in suburbia, but not quite enough to have a nest egg where their second mortgage resides. Tensions can therefore rise as Danny’s future is always held as paramount while his parents struggle to ensure he doesn’t feel the strain. And this is why the day we finally settle upon is so tough. After ten years, Mike is unceremoniously fired.
It’s here that we learn he’s a former cop, the occupation change made to bring stability and safety to his home. We meet his old partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) over a drink of woe as well as his former sergeant-turned-captain Hawthorne (Sam Neill)—a man both have immense if unelaborated ill-will towards. The sequence is overt in its set-up because this background is crucial to believing his family man is capable of doing what he’s soon asked to do aboard the train he’s taken every single day for a decade. It’s therefore no coincidence that the enigmatic Joanna (Vera Farmiga) chooses Mike to target as her mark. He not only has the motive (she’s offering one hundred thousand dollars), but also the skills to accomplish her goal.
The ask is complex in its simplicity. Do an insignificant act that will prove very significant to the stranger on the receiving end and get paid for the trouble. Find the person who doesn’t belong—the man or woman who isn’t a regular passenger—and tag their bag with a GPS tracker. That’s it. But being a former cop sows doubt in Mike’s mind because he knows that much money isn’t given away on a whim. What’s going to happen to this anonymous person? Is he setting them up to be arrested or perhaps even worse? So despite taking the initial stack of cash that renders him a “player,” Mike has second thoughts. Before he can act on them, however, Joanna threatens the two people he loves most.
Thus begins the cat and mouse game wherein every stop of the train means fewer potential candidates. Mike gets the employees involved, questions complete strangers, and does everything he can to secretly enlist the help of friends (Alex) and acquaintances (Jonathan Banks‘ Walt and Andy Nyman‘s Tony) to fight for leverage over a force outside of his control and sight. Similar to Non-Stop, this type of unsolicited and seemingly unnecessary action makes him the target of everyone else’s confusion and fear. While he hunts for an anomaly, he becomes an anomaly. Mike’s desperation leads to mistakes and Joanna makes certain he understands the very real consequences of each one as bodies start to fall. It’s a race against time, unquantifiable villainy, and his inherent willingness to save himself.
The first three-quarters of the journey are great. There are as many mysterious characters (Ella-Rae Smith‘s Sofia and Roland Møller‘s Jackson) as those to feel sympathy for (Clara Lago‘s Eva and Florence Pugh‘s Gwen) and revile (Shazad Latif‘s Vince and Adam Nagaitis‘ Jimmy). We create our own preconceptions as Mike manifests his. We make assumptions and watch the fallout reveal how hastiness often sacrifices compassion. Once Mike makes his decision as far as proving “what kind of man he is,” however, things do fall apart. The search moves towards an explosive climax meant to shake everything up despite merely landing at a rather unexciting finale with far fewer shocks than the script believes it possesses. It’s still effectively orchestrated, but any desire for “freshness” is killed.
So The Commuter is entertaining and a worthwhile watch when so few of its ilk are at this time of year. It simply doesn’t do anything new or necessarily inventive. Think of it and Collet-Serra for that matter as the blue collar, meat and potatoes staple the industry needs to chug along in its escapist bliss. We get action, mystery, and suspense, explosions, betrayals, and moral tests of self. The acting is better than it probably needs to be and the script tight enough and fast enough to keep us invested without looking too closely at the strings. You will leave the theater with expectations satiated and that’s not a bad thing. Give me a smart(ish) popcorn flick in January over a dumb one in May any day.
 Joanna (Vera Farmiga) and Michael (Liam Neeson) in THE COMMUTER. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.
 Sam Neill stars as ‘Captain Hawthorne’ in THE COMMUTER. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment
 Patrick Wilson stars as ‘Murphy’ in THE COMMUTER. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment