Jaume Collet-Serra is such a weird, interesting filmmaker. Most of his movies are on the spectrum bad. But they are the trashy, fun kind of bad that make for great random HBO cable views and January cineplex releases. His first release, House of Wax, became infamous for cheering on Paris Hilton's gruesome death. Orphan delivered a too-crazy-to-believe twist. His most recent film, Blake Lively vs. shark movie The Shallows is stripped down, fun survival horror.
But it is Collet-Serra's run with born-again action star Liam Neeson that has marked his career. Together, they've made four films over the last seven years. Aside from crime thriller Run All Night [which is the only of their collaborations that I haven't seen], their films have a pretty similar structure: Liam Neeson is some sort of bad ass, whether a cop or a former cop, there is a convoluted mystery going on, and Neeson is somehow being set up for it.
Unknown, Non-Stop, and The Commuter creates an over-the-top trilogy with increasingly diminishing returns. The thing is, though, if you're seeing The Commuter, you know what you're getting into. And, for the most part, The Commuter delivers on that promise.
By the end, The Commuter doesn't hold up, wrapped up a bit too much in its conspiracy building. But if you're looking for something to do on a quiet Saturday night in about 6 months, flip on HBO and The Commuter will probably be on and you'll watch it and everything will be fine.
What it's about: Neeson plays The Commuter, also known as Michael MacCauley, a former cop who now sells life insurance, living the life of a regular ol' family man. After getting laid off after 10 years at his firm, his commute home that night is a bit different than usual. Approached by a mysterious woman [Vera Farmiga], he is posed a hypothetical question about making an anonymous decision that will greatly impact the life of a stranger. This actually isn't a hypothetical situation, though, and MacCauley quickly gets caught up in a cat-and-mouse conspiracy.
If you read any review of The Commuter, it should really be this one, written by an actual train professional judging the film on the train details.
Be warned of spoilers from here on out. While I won't reveal specific plot details, I may talk about important structural elements of the film that may be important.
There are a lot of preexisting fibers that come together to make The Commuter. The two obvious ones are The Box for the hypothetical game premise and, more importantly, Murder on the Orient Express for the setting and mystery plot mechanics.
The game at the center is fun enough. It is simple, which allows it to grow into many different directions. It also has a pretty familiar build, with stops at "is this actually happening" and "is this really that serious" and "you're family is in danger if you don't play along" all along the route.
The way people react to Neeson's character is all over the map. He frequently does crazy, suspicious, violent things. At one point in the film the police are actively looking for him. And yet, complete strangers and authority figures on the train alike will treat him like he's the film's hero -- which, of course, he is, but no one else could know that. Let alone the action bits that go on without anyone else on this train seeming to notice.
In that way, the film would actually work better if everything happening was completely in his head, the ravings of a broke madman on the edge of sanity. Neeson delivers some wonderful crazy mumblings of nonsense. But, alas, the film goes out of its way to confirm its reality pretty early on.
Once the Agatha Christie-esque puzzle is solved, there is still so much film left. The mystery shifts to fill out the backstory of what is really going on here -- why MacCauley was chosen, what he was chosen for, etc. A larger conspiracy emerges that is inconsequential to most of the characters in the story. I can understand trying to be something bigger, but I was a little let down that this couldn't just be the sinister little game that was set at the start.
Above everything, the most ridiculous thing about The Commuter is its supposition that people who take the same train together every day actually talk to each other at any point ever.