Mark Reviews Movies

The Commuter


2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Andy Nyman, Jonathan Banks, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Clara Lago, Roland Møller, Florence Pugh, Colin McFarlane, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ella-Rae Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense action/violence, and language)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 1/12/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 11, 2018

Director Jaume Collet-Serra clearly is drawn to high-concept, relatively minimalist thrillers. The Commuter is another from the filmmaker, in which an ordinary man is caught up in a political conspiracy involving murder while taking a commuter train home. He has to find someone who doesn't belong on the train before it reaches a certain spot. That's the high-concept part. The minimalist part is that most of the movie is set on that train, which offers little room to maneuver and provides an easy ticking clock as it goes from one stop to the next.

It's kind of clever, this bit of detective work within a restricted setting. The screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle throws a few more complications into the mix, too, such as the fact that some of the strangers on the train might be working with or against our protagonist. Trying to figure out the identity of the correct stranger might draw unwanted attention and could result in terrible consequences.

It's fairly simple, but such simplicity rarely stands in such movies. There seems to be a consistent temptation for screenwriters to want to do more with such material. The more effective thrillers of this variety avoid that temptation as much as possible. This one doesn't.

The hero is Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), a former cop who, ten years ago, moved on to sell life insurance policies at a big firm in New York City. There's an impressive montage that opens the movie, going through years of morning routines between Michael, his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and their son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman). By the end, Danny is preparing to go to college, and Michael and Karen are struggling to find the money for it.

On the particular morning that the montage ends, Michael is laid off from his job. While drowning his misery at a nearby bar, he has a chance meeting with his old partner on the force Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), who gives a brief rundown of the political shifts in the department since Michael left. All the while, Michael avoids calling Karen to tell her the news about being let go.

Taking his usual train home, Michael is approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who says she specializes in studying human behavior. She posits a hypothetical scenario with an engaging smile: Would Michael do a small favor for her, in exchange for $25,000 up front and an additional $75,000 once the favor is complete? All he has to do is find a particular passenger—someone who isn't a regular on the commute—and tag the person's bag with a GPS tracker. The person means nothing to him, and he'll never know the consequences of his actions.

Michael doesn't necessarily agree, but after Joanna gets off the train, he does take the cash, hidden in one of the train's bathrooms. That, in Joanna's mind, is an agreement. He has to find the passenger before a specific stop. If he doesn't, his family will be killed.

This is simple enough for a plot, and the screenplay takes advantage of the simplicity by following Michael's process for determining which passenger is the one he should tag. He walks down the aisle of the train, moving between cars, to find passengers with tickets that are marked with the appropriate spot. He gets into conversations with the suspected strangers, and he enlists the help of the train's conductor (played by Colin McFarlane) to search someone's bag under the guise of the "See something, say something" campaign. Passengers leave, and the number of suspects diminishes as he does his detective business.

All the while, Collet-Serra and cinematographer Paul Cameron's camera breezes through and between cars, establishing the limited locale and following Michael along his back-and-forth way (It should come as no surprise that some of the passengers begin to suspect him of ill intent, given his behavior and the way he keeps showing up with some new injury). It works for a while, in fact, although Michael's moral quandary seems like an afterthought, considering how eager he is to do the work, even before he knows his family is in peril.

The concept and the execution, though, fall apart in gradual stages. We expect there to be some action here, and there are a few fistfights, most notably a convincingly faked one-take in which the combatants use the seats, the handrails, a window, and an electric guitar as weapons. That fight—between Michael and another stooge—makes no rational sense, though, under the circumstances. Collet-Serra is, perhaps, smart enough to realize this fact, and hence, we get an all-out brawl with a technical flourish in order to distract us from the fight's illogical nature.

Eventually, all signs of logic (and, during the massive derailment of a climax, physics) are tossed aside. Michael's predicament starts to feel convoluted, since he could resolve so much of this by simply explaining what's happening to one or more of the characters. The motives of vital players either are ignored or don't hold up to the slightest scrutiny. The screenwriters attempt to wipe all of these things away by citing a vast conspiracy by unseen forces, but that adds another layer of complications to The Commuter. When you set up something this simple, complications simply get in the way.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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