The Commuter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
For a good while of Jaume Collet-Serra’s action-thriller “The Commuter,” we get the impression it is going to take us somewhere exciting despite the standard template of an ordinary person suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. But once it reaches the halfway point and some of its secrets are revealed, it proves to be yet another uninspired suspense picture in which the protagonist must prove his innocence during a hostage situation. And prior to the expected standoff, plenty of repetition is to be endured.
Liam Neeson plays life insurance salesman Michael MacCauley who is approached by a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition and a $100,000 on the line. In order to walk away with this money, all he must do is determine which person on the train does not belong, put a tracker onto his or her bag, and walk away. Neeson plays the beleaguered sixty-year-old ex-cop with convincing enthusiasm, but the screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle fail to provide personal details about the character amidst the action and plot twists.
As a result, Michael becomes a wooden protagonist. The material hammers us over the head with the fact that he loves his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), but what about his sense of humor, how he is like at his best (or worst), does he have any specific plans after retirement? There is nearly nothing worth knowing about him. Even action-thrillers are not immune from having to contain effective personal drama and seemingly superfluous details in order for the audience to invest into its characters. Collet-Serra has gotten away with this barebones approach, particularly in the wonderful shark picture “The Shallows,” but given that the content of the film touches upon real-world problems like family finances and personal satisfaction regarding one’s career, the overall strategy must change as well.
Some of the fight scenes are downright off-putting. While the picture makes good use of the limited space inside the train, hand-to-hand fights are executed poorly. A particular eyesore is the fight between Michael and one of the commuters he suspects. The fight scene is so exaggerated to the point where it feels like the scene is taken right off movies containing cartoonish violence. It just does not work here because the material has established a more humble tone and atmosphere, as close as possible to reality. In addition, look closely and notice that these fights appear to unfold in an unnatural speed.
As I sat through the film, I got the impression that “The Commuter” might have been a stronger work had it embraced a more cerebral tone, making room to excavate personal motivations; to establish a paranoid mood so no one, not even the protagonist, can be trusted; and to provide more details about each suspect. Instead, we are given a project designed to entertain the lowest dangling fruit.