Collet-Serra made his name as a skilled schlockmeister with his House of Wax remake and horror/thriller Orphan in the 2000s, before he joined forces with Neeson (in the post-Taken stage of his acting career) for the 2011 mystery/thriller Unknown.
Neeson portrays Michael MacCauley, a 60-year-old former NY cop who has been selling life insurance in Manhattan. No notice, no pay-off, and with a son about to go to college, no idea what to do next. It's nearly as if it's Taken meets Strangers on the Train. Then, on his journey home, a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) appears with a lucrative, morally challenging, proposal: if he agrees to use his skills to find and identify someone on the train before it reaches a particular station, he will be paid a hefty fee. If he does as he's told, he'll get $100,000; if he fails or refuses, his family will die.
The action in The Commuter isn't good enough to make up for a flat story and the unoriginal twists and turns. Instead, it leans into his sixty-five years of experience, showing someone who is both skilled yet helpless. The pace is such that you might not take much notice of this as the movie barrels toward its climax, and Neeson's presence is so commanding that he nearly single-handedly makes up for all the shortcomings.
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It's surprising that a movie as straightforward as The Commuter has anything on its mind, but there is a worthwhile subtext here, and even if the movie can lay it on thick at times (at one point, Michael literally flips off a guy from Goldman Sachs), there's still something to be said for tapping into the feeling of playing by the rules your entire life only to have those rules fail you.
The movie proves more of a letdown for the other actors who board this fast-moving yarn, leaving little to do for the more recognizable faces on the train (Jonathan Banks) as well as those who aren't (McGovern, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill).
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If you're hoping for some clever one-liners, don't get your hopes up. It's hard to look at The Commuter (Neeson's fourth collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra since 2011) and see what sets it apart from... well, almost everything.
The Commuter is a goofy and formulaic thriller, but also an entertaining one thanks to Neeson's action star chops and Collet-Serra's sense of style. The ability to play both sides-the action hero and the everyman-is a rare gift, and Neeson makes the most of it. It's incredible how many shots are fired and how much brutality takes place before the passengers just a vehicle or two away become aware of Michael's Very Rough Day. There's a schlocky Hitchcock vibe to the whole thing with one-take fistfights standing alongside contra-zooms.
It's a Liam Neeson movie. It may not be as smooth or devilishly clever as a Hitchcock movie, but The Commuter is still exhilarating all the same.
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