Liam Neeson kicking someone’s ass is practically an annual event at this point, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point, it’s happened so much that the formula has been refined to a certain level, with a full spectrum of results available to help judge each passing film’s quality. With the Neeson Scale pretty well worked out at this point, it’s safe to say that The Commuter is, by far, not the worst film on the scale. But at the same time, this concept has been executed better in the past.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is your average commuter, who’s about to have a very bad day. Approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), he’s given a choice: do “one small thing” for a huge payout, or just walk away none the wiser. What begins as a simple psychological experiment turns into a much more twisted conspiracy, pitting Michael against the clock in the name of saving his family. He has little information as to how to complete his task, but if he doesn’t, he’ll lose everything, and everyone, he loves.
The best aspects of The Commuter are the film’s trim length (a sub two-hour running time), and the fact that Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra are so familiar with this sort of film that they can practically make it in their sleep. Thankfully, both collaborators are not slacking on the job, as Neeson’s lead is charismatic and identifiable, while also being a total badass; and Collet-Serra’s camera loves him for it. There are even a couple of action beats in The Commuter that are hair-raising. One of which is a particularly brilliant fight between Neeson and a fellow rider, which includes a long take following the path of a gun involved in the event. They’re a team that works, and the only thing that could stand in their way is a script that lets them down.
Which is where the worst parts of The Commuter come into play. If this script fleshed out its conspiracy just a little more, or even rearranged some pieces of its structure into a better suited order of operations, the film could have been a much more effective exercise in pulp action delight. Unfortunately, there’s a huge exposition dump after one of the film’s other impressive set-pieces, involving the train itself, and that slows down the rather impressive third act. Even more harmful to The Commuter is the fact that the first two acts are a bit of a slog, with the narrative failing to lock into a proper rhythm. We’re given too many red herrings, and not enough valid pieces of correct and verifiable information to truly get invested in the film’s mystery. But when that third act really kicks in, speed bump aside, it gets quite intense.
If The Commuter reduced the character count, and gave all of the big ticket names the film wants you to focus on more substantial roles, it might have been more cohesive on the mystery angle. Conversely, if the film gave us the information needed to solely focus on the action, and threw in a couple more fights and set-pieces, we could have had something on par with Taken level Liam Neeson. Instead, the film falters in both respects, and wastes the likes of Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Neill in roles that are barely on screen.
Should the studio really wants to start a new franchise of Liam Neeson kicking all sorts of ass, they could do it with The Commuter. Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra have enough material, and an effective working relationship, to make this into some serious fun. But if they really want to go that route, or even if they continue to work together on entertaining one-off projects, they’re going to need to find a writing team that can give them the proper vehicle. If you can get a reduced fare ticket to see The Commuter, it’s a fun ride. It’s just a shame there’s not enough thrills and mystery to bring this one to the end of the line in style.