You basically know what you’re getting into when you buy a ticket for a Liam Neeson, Jaume Collet-Serra joint. There will be a mystery, there will be cheese, and Liam Neeson will crack some skulls. The heights of what they could do together seemed perfected with their goofy airplane thriller Non-Stop. For what it’s worth, and I’m not totally sure how much it’s actually worth, that bar has been raised with The Commuter.
Before I get into a bevy of backhanded compliments about how silly and ridiculous this fun movie is, I’d like to point out the film’s legitimately outstanding opening credit sequence, which acts as its own mini-film about the cruel passage of time. Through a series of clever blocking and cuts, we see Liam Neeson wake up, get ready for work, talk to his rapidly aging child, and deal with a number of weather patterns, all before getting on the same train he boards every single day for a decade. It’s a remarkable bit of storytelling that tells you everything you need to know about the character’s status as “a commuter” and family man. It won’t earn the same regard, but its creativity and novelty is right up there with the opening credits of last year’s also French and ludicrous Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
After that, things calm down a little. Neeson is an ex-cop who has spent the last ten years selling life insurance. He has a nice house, but can just barely pay for it. And with his kid going off to college, he and his wife aren’t sure how they’re going to make ends meet. But they’re hard working Americans, and by god, something will work out. Instead he gets fired. This film isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to its position on American economics.
On his last ride home, Vera Farmiga approaches Neeson and offers him a proposition: identify a particular passenger, plant a tracker on that person, and collect $100,000. Sounds easy, but Neeson soon discovers it’s all a setup and must protect this mystery person while saving his family against an enemy who seems to know his every move.
It’s quite a conundrum, and of course, it ends up adding up to a lot less than you’d think. But that’s part of the fun. You’re not watching these to see a guy really confront impossible odds and lose everything. The movie makes things easy because he’s Liam Neeson and we love him. A lot of movies wrap up in a neat and clean bow, but the conclusion here almost seems like parody; I couldn’t have been happier.
Collet-Serra is a strange filmmaker. He’s clearly capable of so much but seems eager to focus on things he sucks at. There’s a hand-to-hand fight halfway through the room that blew me away, but such intensity is never repeated and almost seems accidental. Instead Serra focuses on a big, laughable CG derailment sequence and similar trailer-friendly shots that don’t really reflect the film’s minimal scope. I do believe he is a natural showman, however. There’s a glee to the way he illustrates all the train’s potential suspects by just dragging the camera down the entire monstrosity and showing them to us. The Commuter is silly action-mystery perfection, and I’m thankful he’s out there giving us movies like this most Januarys, but it’s hard not to wonder about the legitimate action filmmaker that might be within him, someone closer to what we saw with Run All Night.
As I said up top, you know what you’re getting with this, so if that’s not for you, don’t bother. But if you like that Neeson-Serra sauce, know that this is their best batch yet, a total blast no one’s asking you to take seriously. After nearly three years apart, I’m so happy my boys are back at it.