Jaume Collet-Serra and actor Liam Neeson have paired up a number of times to create effective, succinct action-thrillers. THE COMMUTER is their 2018 entry and it is, like 2014’s NON-STOP, all about moral choices and finding people.
THE COMMUTER deals in confined spaces more than explosive set pieces, which gives it a refreshing sensibility. Collet-Serra discerningly populates his picture with lots of activity within each scene. There’s always someone looking suspicious, peering out over a seat on the commuter train, slogging around the aisle.
Neeson stars as Michael, ex-cop turned insurance salesman. He’s lining things up for his son to go to college when he’s fired. As he heads home on his regular commuter train, he’s approached by a woman (Vera Farmiga). She tells him that he can earn $100,000 if he locates a passenger. This, as you might expect, turns Michael’s day from bad to worse.
The intricacy of the scenario is a little on the cumbersome side, but Collet-Serra is skilled at developing the mystery. The screenplay by Bryon Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle is touched by a few too many twists and turns. The ultimate facts are seldom in doubt, even if the identity of the mystery passenger sometimes is.
But a good thriller isn’t all about surprises or outcomes, which is what makes THE COMMUTER worthwhile. Collet-Serra’s exercise in semi-Hitchcockian tone goes down easy when it keeps things simple, but there are moments that pop the pulse way out of whack.
Consider a fight scene involving Neeson’s character and a man with a gun (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). Cinematographer Paul Cameron, who helped shoot Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL, gets to the essence of the sequence by focusing on severe physical competition. The men beat the daylights out of each other, but it’s realistic and forceful.
Unfortunately, a late sequence involving the train veers in the opposite direction. Here, undue reliance on flash and thunder creates an over-the-top aesthetic that betrays the movie’s smaller moments. The scene seems to go on and on, past the point of silliness, and it doesn’t do the characters or the thriller any favours.
Still, THE COMMUTER is satisfying. Neeson puts in a solid performance as a man capable of being wrong, of being frustrated to death by his situation, of being distressed. While we never question the allegiance or honour of the Irishman, we do watch as commuters and friends question his stability.
THE COMMUTER is at its best when it plays cat and mouse with the audience. Collet-Serra’s gift is in navigating the thin corridor of the train, in spotting those circumstantial faces as they pay a little too much attention, in prying the doors open to find veiled details. And as thrillers go, this is a pretty damn good one.