‘The Commuter’ rides out mediocre messages

Courtesy of Lionsgate
The Commuter starring Liam Neeson grossed $23.5 million as of Jan. 15 competing with The Post and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 55 percent.

By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer

01/18/2018

Headlined by Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga, The Commuter is a fast-paced ride guaranteed to put you on the edge of your seat; just try not to think about things too deeply after the credits roll.

Ex-police officer, current insurance salesman and regular train commuter Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is just trying to make ends meet. With his son getting ready to go to college and the family’s finances on shaky grounds, Michael’s life takes a sudden downturn when he gets fired from his job only five years away from retirement.

But a chance meeting with a mysterious woman named Joanna (Farmiga) changes everything when she gives Michael an offer he cannot refuse: a $100,000 reward for finding someone on the train who is not supposed to be there. Faced with an almost impossible task, and with his wife and son’s lives on the line, Michael is in a race against time before the train reaches the target’s intended stop in Cold Springs.

For action enthusiasts, the film may satisfy an itch to get one’s heart racing — even if its plot sensibility begs some attention. For Snowpiercer or Train to Busan fans, The Commuter might particularly be worth a look, but be prepared to get carried away by some strange narrative decisions.

Much like the Resident Evil live-action films, The Commuter begs its viewers to go in understanding what it is not. This is not a cerebral reflection on family, fatherhood or what it means to be a certain kind of person, no matter how much the movie pushes these “morals of the story.” Rather, its only real goal seems to be to get audiences to flinch in visceral ways: from Michael getting pulled under the train and needing to roll out across the tracks without getting run over, to dodging an opposite oncoming train when his head is pushed out the window, to having his head smashed through glass partitions. There is little of substance beyond that.

When all is said and done, is The Commuter as bad as it sounds? Not exactly. Neeson takes on his role as an ex-cop and fired middle-class salesman convincingly enough. Viewers do not doubt his concern for his family or how he taps into old sleuthing skills from his former officer days by paying attention to hole-punched train tickets. The film also indulges in some tertiary character development; we get some backstory for the principal suspects, though only hearing things as they are told to Michael (say, as opposed to character flashbacks) takes away from the impact.

Maybe the most interesting part of the film is its opening montage that feels more apropos for an indie flick. We see various stitched together scenes of Michael’s regular interactions with his wife and son as they get ready each morning. It is regrettable that the film does not indulge more in smart editing, though it gets some kudos for The Scarlet Letter references. For this viewer, I did appreciate a scene mirroring one in Train to Busan involving newspapers and water bottles. Whether an odd coincidence or an inspired shout out, Busan did it better — particularly given that the purpose of the scene in The Commuter gets undermined pretty quickly.

By the end, it is hard to believe that Michael’s family was ever in danger, a mistake that made his escapades for most of the film seem almost pointless. The denouement itself is a slap in the face that makes one question why the audience sat through the first two-thirds of the film. Even after all of the whodunit revelations, The Commuter barely makes clear who the real villains are supposed to be or why some characters or groups do not register as threats.

Joanna is someone akin to an omnipotent dungeon master who manipulates Michael into agreeing with her every odd demand in finding her target — but who is she? And who is “they”? And why are “they” even involved in the criminal conspiracy that does not seem to implicate as many people as we are led to believe?

The Commuter is, unfortunately, a film that leaves more questions than answers in its wake, almost as if begging for an unlikely sequel to lay out some much-needed plot details. It is a movie with unfulfilled potential, but it is a satisfactory enough experience if you just want something packed with fight scenes and an agitated Neeson creeping out various innocent bystanders.

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