Danny Glover’s Murtaugh famously opined in Richard Donner’s classic American buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon, “I’m too old for this shit.” He was 41 at the time. Liam Neeson, age 65 (full benefit retirement age for US citizens), is way too old for this shit. And in a humdrum action-thriller like The Commuter, it shows. Had this Taken on a Train redux a good shake more intelligence and a portion less generic action hero fisticuffs, casting Neeson as down-on-his-luck ex-cop turned insurance-hawking family man Michael MacCauley would make perfect sense. As it stands, The Commuter is just another forgettable notch in Neeson’s geriatric action movie phase defined by jarring editing and risible action that can’t strike a passable balance between taking itself seriously and being utterly ridiculous.
The premise of The Commuter is Hitchockian in nature if not execution. A regular passenger (Neeson) is approached by a well-dressed woman (Vera Farmiga) who proffers what seems like a philosophical hypothetical. Would you find someone who doesn’t belong on this train, not knowing the consequence of your finding them, for $100,000? The theoretical exchange turns out to be much more real than MacCauley first imagines, the quick thinking train traveler ensnared in a conspiratorial plot where his family’s safety hangs in the balance. While Hitchcock might pose a similar question, he would resolve the query predominantly through intellect. The Commuter opts for another path.
There’s early potential for a successful mash up of Strangers on a Train meets Eagle Eye, where a omnipresent malevolent forces orchestrate the undoing of a desperate man…on a train, but the film is quickly derailed by too many over-the-top zany hijinx and a groan-worthy, unintentionally laugh-inducing script from the writing trio of new kids on the block Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle.
For a while MacCauley uses his wits to wile his way out of a tight spot but The Commuter stops dead in its tracks upon encountering the perfunctory cineplex-ready set pieces. What ought to be heart-pumping close quarter train action (anyone remembering 2010’s pretty decent Unstoppable can likely imagine what that looks like) had me more concerned about Neeson’s blood pressure than anything occurring on screen. The man, though in good shape for his age, just can’t hack the action scenes. The body doubles are obvious with Neeson’s face suspiciously missing whenever punches are thrown and bodies hucked hither and thither. At one point, another regular commuter, Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, joking about his old man status, kids about the size of his prostrate. He’s only five years Neeson’s senior.
A scene wherein MacCauley dangles from the side of the train, his lower half painfully dragging on the rocks below, seems the perfect metaphor for The Commuter at large. Dragging its feet to the bitter end, the film lacks the strength to pull itself up from its disposable January action movie mediocrity and the finesse to invest us in this older guy re-boarding the train to combat a faceless plot.
To its unwavering credit, The Commuter has all the kooky thriller on a train action you’d expect – leaping between exploding train cars, blurry handheld fight choreography in tight corridors – as well as some you would not – like an impromptu paper mache project and hand-to-hand combat with an electric guitar. A great director might be able to mask the film’s shortcomings while laughing along at its inherent ridiculousness but Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) can’t seem to get a handle on either the action beats nor the tone.
Neeson doesn’t help. He takes the role far too earnestly, rarely allowing a ray of hammy camp to sneak into his overly self-serious and almost jokingly intense performance. Sulking up and down the train cars, he gives off the impression of a stark raving mad man but doesn’t realize the full potential of his maddening situation. Frankly, he’s just not a ton of fun here. A certain brand of schadenfreude takes over watching The Commuter crumble in its later halves, myself and a good chunk of other viewers at my screening cackling at the various hare-brained plots and dull lines that populate the later portions. Its poorly executed obscurantism and hacky supporting character work failing to conjure any real sense of danger or stakes. And for all the fun I had watching The Commuter, I was left with the overwhelming impression that I was laughing at the film rather than laughing along with it.
CONCLUSION: What you see is what you get with ‘The Commuter’, the latest in wash-rinse-repeat Liam Neeson in a vehicle action-thrillers. A silly script, lame supporting characters and a businesslike performance from Neeson tame the fun of the film’s more ludicrous and fun moments.