Liam Neeson’s late-career rejuvenation as your taxi driver’s favourite action hero has largely been down to three European film-makers. French pair Luc Besson and Olivier Megaton wrote and directed the vengeful paterfamilias fantasies of the Taken series, while Spain’s Jaume Collet-Serra has directed Neeson in a series of highish-concept movies with interchangably forgettable titles: Run All Night (ticking-clock cops), Unknown (amnesia) and Non-Stop (murder at 16,000 feet).
The latter’s locked-box story of an Air Marshall sniffing out a killer above the Atlantic provides a pretty obvious blueprint for the train-tracks mystery of Collet-Serra’s latest, The Commuter, in which Neeson plays a working stiff forced to investigate fellow travellers on his daily ride home. It’s a mostly solid, highly silly excuse for Neeson to punch passengers and do some mild stuntage, an ITV2 ‘why not?’ exercise that sticks to formula and confirms the actor’s status as the Lynx Body Set of modern action stars.
Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a 60 year-old insurance salesman and former cop who gets canned just a few years from retirement, adding to the pressures of a son heading to college, two mortgages and lingering financial bruises from the 2008 crash. He’s the betrayed middle class professional, whose resistance against the nameless forces on the other end of his phone doubles as a fantasy of agency against overwhelming economic capriciousness, validation for the good soldier who does things by the book.
Anyway, the skinny: on the train home, reeling from redundancy, Michael is approached by a beautiful, mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who tells him he must identify the passenger who doesn’t belong on the train and plant a tracking device. He has until the ‘Cold Springs’ stop to do so (they say ‘Cold Springs’ a lot); if he does, there’s a handsome payday, if not his wife and kids get it. Which means that, yes, Neeson spends a lot of time on the phone growling about his family.
So Michael and his brown satchel (the satchel gets a lot of screen time) run up and down the train, inspecting tickets and initiating awkward conversations with Cleudo-type personalities: Goldman Sachs asshole; punk girl with pink streaks; South American nurse. It’s a trashy sub-Christie mystery with scintillating dialogue like ‘that’s a monthly pass, you’re a regular commuter!’, but it’s still more fun than Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Collet-Serra’s direction doesn’t have the precision to mine tight suspense out of cramped spaces, but as in Non-Stop he loosens up the limited location with tight, jittery shots, mixing close-ups of Neeson’s confused, beleagured expression with zoom-ins on ticket stubs. There are moments of almost funny murder mystery silliness, and Farmiga’s on-call delivery has an icy dynamism lacking in conventional gruff terrorist delivery, and Jonathan Banks gets a welcome small role. As the journey rattles towards its destination and the conspiracy is sketched out, some of the fun leaks like sabotaged engine fluid, the ending a standard standoff with computer-generated locomotive carnage.
The Commuter is disposable but non-objectionable: when it comes to Big Liam’s punchy second life, it seems we’re nowhere near the end of the line. Conor Smyth
The Commuter is on wide release.