Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill
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Taut, inventive, and never in danger of overplaying its hand, The Commuter is a robust and rather old-fashioned thriller…
Everyday insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) commutes to his New York job via train. When we meet him, however, his life has spilled out of its comfortable rut: he’s been made redundant just before retirement, which makes paying for his son’s college tuition an impossible burden. That makes him easy pickings for a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who singles him out on his return trip with an offer: someone onboard is not one of the regular passengers, but a murder witness going to meet with the FBI. Figuring out who should be an easy task for an ex-cop (of course he’s an ex-cop) who takes the same train every day. If he pulls it off, there’s money. If he fails, or tries to warn the target, his wife and son will be killed. And so the clock is ticking.
The Commuter is Neeson’s fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Sera, following on from Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Their partnership is somewhat reminiscent of that between Denzel Washington and the late Tony Scott, producing solid, enjoyable thrillers that, while never in danger of troubling the academy, are generally a cut above the usual genre fare.
Visually and tonally, however, Collet-Sera’s principal debt is to Alfred Hitchcock. While he may lack the Master of Suspense’s psychological insight and command of thematic unity, he’s more than familiar with all the stylistic tools in Hitch’s box, deploying them to enjoyable, pulpy effect. With its locomotive setting and inevitably deadly devil’s bargain, The Commuter‘s obvious antecedent is Strangers on a Train, but Neeson’s everyman-in-a-bind predicament is a mirror for any number of times poor Jimmy Stewart was caught up in one of Hitchcock’s enjoyably nightmarish webs of intrigue.
Neeson give a typically commendable performance – is there anyone else who can so effortlessly synthesise being both a salt-of-the-earth regular guy and completely capable of kicking any ass that presents itself at the same time? – and he’s supported by an ensemble of excellent character actors, including Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, and Elizabeth McGovern. The film’s high concept is, of course, ridiculous on close examination, and the reach and ruthlessness of the conspiracy involved beggars belief, but it all works in the moment – Collet-Sera never gives us time to get bored, and Neeson is such an arresting screen presence that questions of plausibility only come after the fact.
Taut, inventive, and never in danger of overplaying its hand, The Commuter is a robust and rather old-fashioned thriller that forgoes trying to reinvent the wheel in favour of delivering 100 minutes and change of rising tension, well-executed suspense and the odd burst of visceral action – who can say no to that?