The Commuter (2018) – Film Review
by Roger Crow
One evening after a late shift, I slipped my headphones on and watched Non-Stop. It was one of the most immersive home movie experiences of recent years as the bulk of it took place on a flight, and felt like I was actually on a red eye.
The set-up was simple: troubled law enforcer Liam Neeson was going from A to B, got a mystery message and had to solve a mystery. It was the same premise as Jodie Foster’s Flightplan, but a lot more thrilling.
And as Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra had struck gold with Non-Stop and the earlier thriller Unknown, there was little surprise when they teamed up again for this film in three parts.
The first is mostly terrific. Neeson is Michael, an ex cop who has spent a decade commuting to a life insurance job. He knows pretty much everyone on his train. So when he gets the sack, gets drunk with some old cop colleagues (one called Alex Murphy, possibly as a nod to RoboCop’s alter ego), and goes home to break the news to his wife, his life really starts to fall apart.
His phone is stolen, but on the plus side he starts chatting to mystery woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga). No chance of any funny business as he emphasises the fact he’s married. She’s not bothered as she’s apparently carrying out a psychological study. (Fans of Farmiga’s Source Code will get flashbacks to that superior train-based thriller).
Up to his neck in debt and with a kid off to college, the tempting carrot of a stack of cash to carry out a hypothetical task is too good to resist. When the lady vanishes, Liam/Michael goes off to find the theoretical money. And what do you know? He finds it.
Michael is soon forced to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger on the train before the last stop. What follows is a mostly gripping thriller which mirrors the same tried-and-tested formula of Non-Stop… until an ‘axe’ versus axe fight scene, a runaway train sequence straight from Unstoppable, and a shark-jumping explosive set piece. When 60-year-old Liam/Michael fights with a far younger man, the movie turns into a bad Die Hard clone.
Now Liam is obviously great when the occasion demands, but during some of the fight scenes, he turns into the cringeworthy tragi-comedy character from cult 1990 offering Darkman. More ham than a butcher’s shop window.
“Going off the rails”
Once the train comes to a stop, and the movie starts sounding like a send up of Spartacus, plot threads are tied up, and the lengthy finale outstays its welcome like the delayed Leeds to King’s Cross
As Michael is unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that involves everyone on the train, you wonder how much more ridiculous things will get.
There’s a nice in-joke regarding a phone and the film Unknown, and great closing titles, but those annoying action scenes push this into the realms of farce. Neeson scrabbling around under the train is pure comedy, and again reminiscent of the time he had to race across the top of one in Darkman.
There was a first-class thriller here, and had Serra stuck to Hitchcock-style tension rather than ridiculous set pieces, it would have been a lot more successful instead of literally going off the rails.
The special effects aren’t bad, but for the most part it looks like a video game cut scene. Too many elaborate camera moves, such as a pull-back through the entire train, which would have looked dated in 2008.
Perhaps best to watch the first half, and when things start getting (really) silly, turn it off and watch the original version of The Lady Vanishes. That’s far more satisfying because flashy camera moves and explosions are no substitute for a great story.