The Commuter (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Liam Neeson on train (you guess it)

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“The Commuter” will be a definite guilty pleasure for you if you have enjoyed a bunch of recent action thriller flicks starring Liam Neeson. Again, he plays a tough guy suddenly thrown into a very urgent circumstance, and you will surely appreciate how he steadily carries everything well as a good actor who has established himself as an unlikely but undeniably effective action movie hero during last 10 years since the unexpected success of “Taken” (2008).

Here in this film, he plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley, who has worked as an insurance company employee for 10 years since he retired from the New York City Police Department. He has lived with his wife and son in a suburban area outside New York City, and the opening sequence of the movie shows us his constant morning routine over several months. After waking up early in the morning, he talks a bit with his wife and son as preparing himself for another day to begin, and his wife later takes him to a nearby train station where he gets on a commuter train to the city along with others.

When Michael gets on the train on one day, everything seems to be mostly fine as usual except his family’s chronic financial problem, and that impression is continued as he works on his potential clients, but then there comes a bad news. He is suddenly notified that he is fired, and he does not know what to do as struggling with the emotional turmoil inside him. He understandably hesitates to tell this bad news to his wife, and his grueling hesitation continues even when he eventually gets on a commuter train to his suburban neighborhood in the evening.

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And then something unusual happens while he is on that train. It looks like someone has been paying attention to Michael right from when he gets on the train, and that person in question soon approaches to him. At first, the mood between that person and Michael feels rather playful, but, as already shown from the trailer of the movie, that person wants Michael to do something in exchange of $100,000. Although her character is essentially a plot device, Vera Farmiga did a good job of exuding the subtle aura of mystery and intrigue during her brief scene, and she also shows some sense of humor as her mysterious character reveals her shady intention step by step in front of Michael.

Of course, Michael is befuddled at first by the offer from Farmiga’s character, but he soon comes to see that her offer is quite a serious one. As she told him, there is already $25,000 ready to be taken by him, and the rest of the money will be given to him if he just finds a certain person on the train and then secretly pinpoints that unknown person via a GPS tracker.

Because of his current financial difficulty, Michael surely feels tempted by this offer for a while, but he also feels qualms about what can possibly happen once he finds that unknown person. He decides to refuse the offer, but, of course, he only comes to realize that he is already trapped in this increasingly risky circumstance. It looks like his every move on the train is being watched, and then he is pushed further as he faces what will happen to his dear family if he does not do the job as demanded before the train arrives at a certain station.

As a man with a particular set of skills, Michael may be able to find that unknown person before his deadline. While he carefully and desperately searches for any possible clue, director Jaum Collet-Serra, who previously collaborated with Neeson in “Unknown” (2011), “Non-Stop” (2014), and “Run All Night” (2015), provides several good suspenseful scenes. I particularly like one certain scene where Michael finds himself stuck below the train and must get out from there as soon as possible, and I certainly appreciate how Neeson looks believable in that scene and other gritty moments in the film.

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Around the third act, the movie starts to get literally derailed while becoming more ridiculous and preposterous, and it accordingly becomes less engaging as we become more aware of its weak plot. When a hidden motive is finally revealed around that point, we are not so surprised at all because it was virtually telegraphed to us during an earlier scene which exemplifies two time-honored genre clichés. I will not go into details here, but you will recognize them instantly if you are a seasoned moviegoer like me, and you may be wryly amused like I was during my viewing.

Anyway, the movie still works mostly thanks to Collet-Serra’s competent direction and Neeson’s strong presence on the screen, and the result is a bit better than “Unknown” and “Non-Stop”. Yes, it has a fair share of plot holes just like these two films (my nagging question: how the hell is our hero monitored on the train so thoroughly like that?), but it keeps its elements rolling along the course at least during its first two acts, and I enjoyed that process enough to forgive its contrived third act.

I must point out that “The Commuter” is less impressive than Collet-Serra’s previous thriller film “The Shallows” (2016) and also less distinctive that Neeson’s more effective thriller films such as “The Grey” (2011), “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (2014), but it achieves most of what it intends to do at least, and Neeson shows here that he can be tough and steely as before despite being 65 at present. As he said in his recent interviews, he will soon stop playing action movie heroes because of his age, but, boy, he still has it, and I will not deny that I had some fun with that.

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