Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Liam Neeson has it rough, doesn’t he? He can’t go to Europe without people trying to pick a fight. He can’t get a plane without someone trying to hijack it. He can’t go to Istanbul without revenge obsessed baddies taking him and his former wife. He can’t go to British Columbia’s snowy mountain ranges without facing down against hungry wolves. He can’t go to Germany without a bout of amnesia. He can’t be an Irish nationalist without being persecuted. He can’t study homosexual relations without the world reviling him. He can’t be a card-carrying member of the Nazi party and save jews without a mad Nazi general gunning for him. He can’t be a lion without Tilda Swinton getting all Passion of the Christ on him. He can’t be the leader of a crack commando unit without being tried for a crime they didn’t commit – though in that case they do promptly escape to the Los Angeles underground.
Well, to the list of things Liam Neeson is unable to do we add the basic task of taking a train to work. Classic set up: Liam Neeson is a vaguely Irish-American former cop who now does a fairly dull job that isn’t knocking heads together. Plus side – he’s got a loving wife, and some decent kids. Bad news, sexy Vera Farming interrupts his daily commute to proposition him – but in a less sexy way and in a very Mission: Impossible / Source Code way. He has to hunt down someone on the train that shouldn’t be on the train.
We at No Majesty support green living; we recycle – usually, our jokes get a good few uses out of them like a uni lad’s boxers – but we don’t endorse cinematic recycling. For example, Jaume Collet-Serra having made the silly but fun shark attack thriller The Shallows, picking up his script for Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, crossing out every use of the word plane and replacing it with train. From the plot, to story beats, to lines of dialogue to casting choices, The Commuter is a remake of Non-Stop by the two guys that made Non-Step not four years previous.
Let’s break it down: Liam Neeson’s character ticks all the Liam Neeson in a thriller boxes – vaguely Irish background (check), former cop (check), bit quiet and reserved (check), has only one child (check), carrying a deep burden (check), not a fan of authority (check), knows the staff by name (check), bit OCD (check), either whispers or shouts (check), doesn’t wear a tie with his suit (check).
This time around Michael McCauley (Neeson) is on his usual commute home after being sacked from his boring office job and faces one question: could you kill a stranger for money. This is an intriguing notion, one that The Box tried to do years earlier, it’s a Black Mirror episode of sorts, but here it’s wasted on a sub-Orient Express thriller of “who is Prynne”, the target in question. We then get to meet the other players in this story, and again the Non-Stop checklist is used.
Short character actor as a dorky type (check), British actor from Batman Begins in charge of the vehicle (check), Academy Award worthy actress wasted in bland dialogue scenes with Neeson (check), bald supporting actor from acclaimed TV show in small thankless role (check), young black actress-of-the-minute in one scene (check), an authority figure on the outside telling Neeson he’s out of order played by a “oh he’s in that thing!” (check), someone from Downton Abbey (check).
The only real difference this time – and it’s barely worth mentioning – is that this time it also has the great Patrick Wilson is in as a cop, called Alex Murphy. Whoever wrote this, take note, don’t name your Patrick Wilson character after Robocop. Now, if this were a bizarre reboot of Robocop, that might have been interesting, the but whole train gimmick doesn’t work because a train, unlike a plane, frequently stops. The tension is gone because, secret organisation or not, you can get off a train. What you can’t do is get off a plane mid-flight. Planes are also smaller, causing claustrophobia, and planes are the subject of several high profile hijacking and crashes, causing paranoia.
What you have then is a muted, en-thrilling thriller with a lot of -D’oh it’s not that guy! Until the final reveal is so obvious if you don’t suss it straight away you didn’t see Non-Stop… FYI Non-Stop is better than this. The whole film wastes everyone – Including Neeson who is capable of great acting. Take last year which saw him use that gravel voice to great use in A Monster Calls, as well as his weight losing tricks for the likes of Mark Felt: The Man who Brought Down the White House and Silence. When he’s able to still turn of fiery performances like that, why bother with such a boring movie like this?
It’s not like Collet-Serra is a bad movie maker either; Non-Stop is good fun, and both Orphan and The Shallows were also very decent. It’s that the post-Statham older man action movie is kind of dead, or at least Liam Neeson’s brand of it is. He’s a proper A-list actor, an awards nominee and should be acting as such. Yes, he had Star Wars and Batman roles but they were little diversions from the Michael Collins roles, the Alfred Kinsey roles, and the Oskar Schindler roles.
The Commuter is not an awful film. No film with Sam Neill is without merit, even if the merit is that Sam Neill is in it, but you can’t coast on decent performers alone, there has to be an intrigue, there has to be something going on that makes you want to keep watching. By the time the overblown finale comes chugging along like a bad CGI turd you’ve lost interest. The intriguing premise – What if an average Joe was given this assassination job in exchange for no money worries is one that could power a miniseries, not just a movie, and with an actor of Neeson’s calibre, he could have turned this into a thought-provoking thriller. Instead, we have a so-so action thriller with loud punchy fights, a twist so obvious it’s a straight and some really stupid moments of comedy.
A total waste of our time, and their time.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.