This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Genre: Action, Thriller
THE COMMUTER is a very stupid movie about bizarrely relevant concepts. It’s like an extreme other side of a coin to THE POST; where Spielberg’s humdrum film is grounded in real life thrill, this takes conspiracy and moral obligation into the realm of, well, a Liam Neeson action movie. It’s campy, dramatically inept despite having the aforementioned star of TAKEN, and utterly maximalist—the traditional fare to expect from Jaume Collet-Serra, who worked with Neeson on films like NON-STOP, UP ALL NIGHT, and UNKNOWN. Yet 2016’s THE SHALLOWS presented creative restraint and formalism from the action filmmaker. With what its premise turns out to be, THE COMMUTER presents a little bit of Collet-Serra doing what he usually does, for better or worse, and a little bit of ambition that flails about wildly like a live wire. It’s just so asinine that you can’t help but keep watching.
Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a family man and ex-cop-turned-insurance-agent mere months from retirement. He spends his mornings and evenings commuting in and out of the city on an extended train ride, with a familiar cavalcade of personalities he’s come to know and befriend over time. One day, out of the blue, he is let go. He laments to his former partner on the force (Patrick Wilson) about his fears of not being able to send his son to college. Then on his way home, he’s confronted by a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) about a clunky hypothetical scenario regarding human behavior: if offered $100k to do a very small task, no questions asked, that will absolutely have an unknown effect on another human being, would you do it? Michael, in a place of post-firing desperation, confirms that there is, in fact, money involved and initiates himself into a conspiracy-laden scenario he cannot back out of, with lives on the line.
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Like THE SHALLOWS, THE COMMUTER sets its plot off with a bit of a game-like premise. The film plays out like a Telltale detective game, with Neeson wandering around train cars, interrogating people, looking for clues, and unfolding a mystery. Jaume Collet-Serra captures the proceedings and subsequent beats of action with spastic spirit. The camera flies through impossible angles and crevices, reminiscent of David Fincher’s use of CGI in FIGHT CLUB and PANIC ROOM. He brings this technique into form when splicing chaotic fight choreography into long takes, sprinting past mediocrity and into post-Wachowski playfulness. One scene in particular that observes a brawl between our lead and an assailant, camera zipping in and out of the train, features an electric guitar being used as a weapon in the most gracefully stupid fashion. One can’t help but admire the imagination on display here, as infantile as it pulsates. THE COMMUTER’s B-movie action strengths fire on all cylinders, dragging behind it half of a very confused but excitable film.
The audacity of THE COMMUTER’s plot is stemmed in what seems like fruitful ground for genuine satire and commentary upon the current state of American corruption. It places its focus and sympathy in the perspective of an average American Joe, whose stand-in is an admittedly Irish Liam Neeson. The loving portrait it paints of its normal American citizens is as colorful as in any action movie from from the ‘80s or ‘90s. Dialogue is very cheesy, heartily overacted, and directed into a very particular flavor of schlock that tries to be cheeky and utterly sincere at the same time. It feels like a throwback to films like SPEED or FALLING DOWN, or even more specifically, like a Paul Verhoeven film that takes into account the core edge of its satire, but is directed without the thematic wherewithal outside of pure action. To see him bouncing off the likes of Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Florence Pugh, Colin McFarlane, and an exciting to watch Kobna Holdbrook-Smith has the thrill of old school action ensembles, even as the film tries to “get real” at points. If this film actually intended to wax poetic about morality plays, it manages to get overshadowed by the punching and the detective work. In any effort to truly say something, or even ground itself, despite how hard Liam Neeson tries, THE COMMUTER is pretty laughable, which ends up being incidentally fine for what it is.
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Back in 2013, Liam Neeson did a memorable spot on the Warwick Davis show LIFE’S TOO SHORT where a fictionalized version of himself tries and fails at performing improvisational comedy. His inability to pull it off comes from apparently lacking a sense of humor, combined with a scary level of dramatic dedication. Even when he isn’t trying his best, Neeson is a performer who has natural gravity to him. THE COMMUTER uses this in mostly comical effect, though the intent is never fully that. From minute one, a juxtaposition between performance and context is formed, and never leaves the movie. Neeson puts his charm and charisma into the sleeve of a character that he feels overqualified to portray, or at least misplaced into. Neeson as an everyman of sorts here is so much fun to watch precisely because the direction given is so inherently wrong, or just out of whack in a way that is refreshing and worth seeing with the right mindset.
This is an undeniably entertaining mess of a film, enjoyable often for just how much of a mess it is. It bleeds from a place reserved for genuine ridiculousness apart from manufactured “self-aware” mediocrity. This is not to say THE COMMUTER is worth it just to mock the artistry on display. Rather, it’s an awesome sight, the collision of a mixed-up Liam Neeson performance and such flagrant ridiculousness that challenges the way we consider movies to be good or worthwhile. There’s nothing pretentious about this concept; sometimes there are movies that are dumb and fun, or for a lot of people, “so bad that it’s good.” THE COMMUTER slightly verges into that camp, and sports enough childlike abandon in its blood that it climbs to the top of the later-aged Liam Neeson action movie canon, making a healthy case for the continued exercise of raw action movie camp. I’d love for filmmakers like the Wachowskis and Sam Raimi to get back into the game and elevate films like this as they’re notorious for doing, but Jaume Collet-Serra at least keeps the seat warm and entertaining.