In an interview with Sky News last September, Liam Neeson said he was retiring from action movies. “I’m like: ‘Guys, I’m sixty-f******-five.’ Audiences are eventually going to go: ‘Come on,’” said Neeson. If The Commuter is the last action movie between Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, they’re going out with their best one, a film that uses Neeson’s age to their advantage while still employing an enjoyable mix of action bombast and Hitchcockian thrills. Collet-Serra uses his claustrophobic setting to his advantage while also weaving a story about the allure of corruption in a system many believe to be inherently corrupt.
After a bravura prologue that shows the daily life of insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson), we see MacCauley having a notably rough day. His son (Dean-Charles Chapman) is about to go off to college, but the family is struggling financially following the 2008 crash. Despite ten years of service to his company, MacCauley is laid off and dejectedly hops his commuter train to head home and break the bad news to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern). It’s not long before he bumps into the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who asks him to do “one little thing.” Drawing on Michael’s background as a cop, she asks him to find a passenger who “doesn’t belong” on this train. If he does as he’s told, he’ll get $100,000; if he fails or refuses, his family will die. Faced with an impossible choice, Michael gets to work trying to find a passenger known only by the fake name, “Prynne.”
Although Neeson has remade his late stage career by being a grizzled action hero of sorts, The Commuter doesn’t try to hide Neeson’s age. Instead, it leans into his sixty-five years of experience, showing someone who is both skilled yet helpless. While it’s a bit convenient that he used to be a cop but then decided to be an insurance salesman (thus removing a bit of “everyman” quality from his situation), it ultimately works because we need to understand why Michael was chosen and how he even has a chance of finding Prynne. These plot shortcuts don’t shortchange the overall film, or the movie’s central theme about how it’s easy to be corrupted when you see the world as corrupt.
It’s surprising that a movie as straightforward as The Commuter has anything on its mind, but there is a worthwhile subtext here, and even if the movie can lay it on thick at times (at one point, Michael literally flips off a guy from Goldman Sachs), there’s still something to be said for tapping into the feeling of playing by the rules your entire life only to have those rules fail you. I wish the movie had done more with the moral conundrum Michael found himself in, but at least there’s an acknowledgment of why Joanna’s offer would be tempting rather than going straight to threatening Michael’s family.
No one expects much from a Neeson/Collet-Serra vehicle because sometimes they work (Non-Stop) and sometimes they don’t (Unknown), but here they seem like a match made in heaven. Neeson has perfected his position as the grizzled everyman who knows how to give as good as he gets. He’s been a boon to the action genre, encouraging other respected veterans to get their own kind of franchise where they can dish out punishment. But few have the inherent decency that Neeson brings to his roles, and Collet-Serra makes the most of it here. You buy Michael as a guy on the ropes who might consider doing a bad thing if it means survival for his family. But you also see him as someone who can relate to his fellow passengers; not a movie star among mere mortals but a fellow commuter. The ability to play both sides—the action hero and the everyman—is a rare gift, and Neeson makes the most of it.
Where The Commuter really excels is just telling a twisty thriller where time and circumstances aren’t on Michael’s side. There’s a schlocky Hitchcock vibe to the whole thing with one-take fistfights standing alongside contra-zooms. Collet-Serra is able to get the most out of Michael moving between train compartments just as he was able to get surprisingly mileage out of Liam-Neeson-Stuck-on-a-Plane in Non-Stop. But the ramp up of the mystery and Michael’s increasing desperation—he’s clever enough to have a chance but not a Holmes-level detective who has it all figured out—makes for a compelling experience. It may not be as smooth or devilishly clever as a Hitchcock movie, but The Commuter is still exhilarating all the same.