The Bumps Make the Ride

The Commuter
(USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Jaume Collet-Saura, Writ. Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern
Vera Farmiga and Liam Neeson in The Commuter
VVS Films
Toot! Toot! The Commuter offers oodles of metaphors for Liam Neeson’s career with its story of a man miscast in the hero role and a train that flies off the rails in its final act. The film is the latest entry in old man Neeson’s most lamentable decline into geriatric action flicks, which has created a sort of parodic sub-genre for aging stars in the decade following the original Taken. The element of novelty is still there even if this self-serious crazy train is one that Neeson’s ridden before. The Commuter is the first class car of the Neeson train, but hardly the caboose.

Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley, a down on his luck everyman who loses his job as an insurance salesman after 10 years of service and pension payments. The layoff is the latest commiseration for Michael after losing all the savings in the 2008 financial meltdown. Without the insurance of a pension, Michael has nothing to support his family, their two mortgages, and his kid who’s heading to college. He can’t bear to tell his wife (Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern). If only a bag of money could fall from the sky.

Said riches do (sort of) fall from the sky, but they inevitably come with a string. The elf who brings the bag is an enigmatic passenger named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who surprises Michael by adding something new to the cavalcade of regulars on his daily commuter train. Joanna offers Michael a personality test after they flirt over classic literature (a running touch that draws upon Michael’s devotion to his son, but betrays The Commuter’s aspiration to be more than mindless entertainment). She says there’s a bag of money in the can that’s Michael’s if he does something shady to a mystery passenger on the train. What could go wrong?

This exchange between Neeson and Farmiga is The Commuter’s greatest asset and its biggest letdown. Neeson is still capable of putting on a good show and when he doesn’t phone it in, he’s great. His onscreen relationship with Farmiga is riveting as Michael takes Joanna’s baity “get rich” scheme and the two actors craft an intriguing morality play that gives The Commuter a great hook. Farmiga is like an enchanting hypnotist and every time Michael’s phone rings and Joanna controls him from afar, one wishes the film kept the actress on the train so that she and Neeson could give the action an upgrade. But Farmiga exits the film quickly and nobody else on the train matches her ability to hold a scene with Neeson in the increasingly strained action that follows.

It’s a similar problem faced by Murder on the Orient Express last year: there’s only so much one can do in the tight confines of a train. Neeson walks up and down the aisle—back and forth like a metronome—and encounters a variety of stock characters like The Rebellious Teenager, The Asshole Banker, and The Suspicious Looking Black Guy who aren’t particularly intriguing, nor do any of the actors deviate from their character type. Michael natters around like a ninny trying to find the mystery passenger, but so few of them are intriguing that The Commuter quickly becomes predictable.

However, there is one element of predictability to The Commuter that delivers on expectations: it’s a stupid Liam Neeson movie. While the flick takes itself too seriously from the outset with its financial meltdown parable, its final act is enjoyably ridiculous as things literally and figuratively fly off the rails as the passengers band together like guardians of democracy occupying Wall Street. (The press screening on a frigidly cold morning thawed with collective laughter that sustained itself for much of the finale.) Neeson fights in slick rumbles. He hangs from the side of the speeding train. He drags under the carriage. He does stunts that could be the envy of Tom Cruise. Neeson guides one groaner of a plot twist after another with such sincerity that The Commuter works in spite of itself. The bumps make the ride.

The Commuter opens in theatres Jan. 12.