Herrings on a Train: Neeson Fights the Good Fight in Half-Baked Transportation Thriller
You can see him in Berlin (Unknown, 2011), or see his kid get snatched again (Taken, Taken 2, Taken 3). You can see him on a plane (Non-Stop, 2014), and, finally, you see him on a train in what stands as the last vestige of Liam Neeson’s late-career action star status in The Commuter. Guess what that’s about? While he was last united with his favorite collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra in 2015’s Run All Night, wherein his alcoholic ex-mobster went pedal-to-the-medal to save his troubled son from being snuffed out, Neeson has reunited with the director for what has been announced as his last action film.
Returning to the middle-class working man’s doldrums (the Charles Bronson inspired bread and butter he’s enjoyed since the surprise box-office success of Taken, 2008), Neeson (who looks like a withered Ichabod Crane) this time stars as an economically compromised insurance salesman who gets a Twilight Zone styled temptation in a crack-pot Agatha Christie designed outfit where our indefatigable star must find a mysterious passenger aboard a Manhattan commuter train or risk losing his family, who’ve been taken hostage.
Plagued by economic uncertainty, committed family man Michael McCauley (Neeson) is devastated to be laid off after ten years working as a life insurance salesman in Manhattan. Nervous to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) since their son is about to move to college and they have two mortgages, McCauley commiserates with his old pal Alex (Patrick Wilson), who was his partner in his previous career as a cop. While taking the commuter train home, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him with a scintillating offer—take twenty-five thousand dollars hidden in the bathroom and discover the person who doesn’t belong on the train before it gets to the end of the line. His reward will be another seventy-five thousand upon completion. While initially taking the bait, McCauley quickly finds he’s trapped in an insidious plot over his head, wherein he must sniff out someone who has troubling information on potentially corrupt city officials.
If Neeson appears more bedraggled than ever (yet still engaged in the same roundelay of extraordinary action sequences) in his fourth time at bat behind Collet-Serra’s B-movie ministrations (following Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night), he’s ever the determined family man who’s unable to be led completely astray. When push comes to shove, Neeson’s heroics will turn the beat around, and The Commuter, like every single one of the star’s action films over the past decade, plays out quite predictably.
Essentially, the screenplay from Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle seems to be modeled after The Murder on the Orient Express, in which the protagonist, targeted for his detecting abilities because ten years prior he was a detective, must sift through patience-testing red herrings to find someone being sought after by the omnipotent evil represented by Vera Farmiga. Anyone wondering why Farmiga was attracted to The Commuter only needs to remember she starred in the director’s most gratifying cheapo thriller, 2009’s Orphan, but here the director is capitalizing on the actor’s reputation in a thruway role as an undefined malevolent lynchpin in a ludicrous plot to stop a priceless witness from meeting up with two federal agents patiently waiting at the end of the line.
Class commentary arrives in the clunky form of its varied passengers (including some notable international actors like Andy Nyman of the original Death at a Funeral, Roland Moller of Land of Mine and Florence Pugh of the fantastic Lady Macbeth, 2016) while the constant instability of the white working class (Elizabeth McGovern stuck playing the pointless wife), and a questionably cast Patrick Wilson as his blue shield buddy (his ex-partner of seven years who has kept up with his friend in their ten year absence since working together) teases at the pitfalls of compromised white privilege.
Lastly, an unnecessary Sam Neill as an old curmudgeon who just made captain and likes to terrorize his subordinates at the Irish bar during off-time by pulling them aside to talk shop is only one more talent squandered. Bumbling but not without a certain entertainment value for its constantly debased and sometimes risible narrative, The Commuter really only goes nowhere fast.