‘The Commuter’ pumps brakes on action, offers stale storytelling

Liam Neeson as "Michael" in THE COMMUTER.
Jay Maidment/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

“I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”

Innumerable over-the-phone threats, two “Taken” sequels and a decade later, Liam Neeson is just as famous for starring in midbudget action movies as he is for that silky Irish growl or for his iconic roles, which include Oskar Schindler, Qui-Gon Jinn and Ra’s al Ghul.

While some of Neeson’s late-career action flicks are fun excuses to watch faceless, vaguely European goons get pummeled into oblivion, others are boring, patience-testing excuses to watch faceless, vaguely European goons get pummeled into oblivion. Neeson’s latest, and his fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, “The Commuter,” falls squarely between those two extremes.

In the film, Neeson plays Michael McCauley, a family man with a very particular — and convenient — set of skills. On his regular train ride home, McCauley is offered $100,000 to find and identify (read: mark for death) an anonymous individual. What follows is a deadly conspiracy and a near beat-by-beat restaging of another Neeson and Collet-Serra collaboration, “Non-Stop” — which, for the record, is a better film.

To complain that “The Commuter” is derivative is slightly redundant, if not invalid — what are any of these films if not direct descendants of “Die Hard”? Yet “The Commuter” lacks the grit of its cinematic ancestor and — save for one scene — the guilty pleasure showdowns of Neeson’s most entertaining work.

Counterintuitively, the film’s best set piece is in the middle of the film, when McCauley and a goon (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), posing as a traveling musician, face off in a train car. In what appears to be a one-take fight, McCauley brutally beats his assailant with a guitar, smashing the regal red Fender Stratocaster to bits, with sharp metal strings unpredictably lashing about. A wide shot, punctuated with the occasional close-up, allows the viewer to clearly see every swing.

For a moment, it looks like Matthew Vaughn of “Kingsman” fame directed the film. But unfortunately, the action in the rest of “The Commuter” suffers from blurry quick cutting. Even if all of the film’s set pieces were comprehensible, there just isn’t enough of it to be entertaining. For a film priding itself on being a celebration of Liam Neeson punching bad guys, he punches three people, tops.

This isn’t to say that the drama unfolding in the train balances the film’s lack of compelling action. The primary villain, Joanna (Vera Farmiga) — the sole female character of any substance — appears only twice. She mostly taunts McCauley via cellphone, threatening a family that would require Olympian proportions of physical effort to remotely care about.

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Jay Maidment/ Courtesy

Worse yet, during a first act that drags harder than a locomotive with brakes for wheels, the film focuses on McCauley responding to the film’s phantom troll of a villain. This means that for a significant portion of the film’s run time, McCauley is an inactive character. He’s merely ordered around and lacks the agency needed to drive a compelling story.

Even when the film ventures into interesting territory — McCauley’s mounting desperation to find the mysterious individual leads him to turn on his fellow passengers — the script immediately backpedals on any promises of tension it makes.

Make no mistake, though — “The Commuter” isn’t entirely unentertaining, even if it does completely underuse veteran actor Sam Neill. In its final 30 minutes, the film clips along at an admirable pace, offering a “that’s more like it” sound and light show that is fun enough to indulge in, despite its inclusion of a requisite twist that errs on the side of predictability.  

Ultimately, as Liam Neeson weighs the pros and cons of maintaining his action movie streak — “Guys, I’m sixty-fucking-five,” he said at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival — one hopes that he ends this chapter of his career on a high note, with a thriller for the ages. “The Commuter,” while possessing some enjoyable action, isn’t that film. Would it be too much to ask to put Neeson in the third “John Wick” installment?

“The Commuter” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].

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