Liam Neeson’s rise to action hero has surprised and delighted me. I have always enjoyed his work in films such as Schindler’s List and Rob Roy. I first noticed him in a supporting role in A Prayer for the Dying, in which he played a doomed member of the IRA. He more than held his own in scenes with Mickey Rourke, a damn fine actor in his own right, but the film that made him one of my favorites was Star Wars: The Phantom Menance, playing Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. After seeing that performance I wanted to go to all of his movies. The Taken series of films really turned him into an action movie superstar at age 55, and since then Neeson has never looked back.
Which brings me to his latest film, The Commuter, in which he plays recently fired businessman and former New York City cop Michael MacCauley. The role is reminiscent of his work in Taken, but Michael is not as adept at handling bad guys as Bryan Mills in those films and takes as many punches as he gives. Michael is similar though in that he is fighting for his family against a seemingly overwhelming number of villains working for some shadowy nefarious group.
Set in Metro North railroad cars heading away from New York City after a working day, the train is filled with regular riders, many of whom Michael knows from seeing them on a daily basis. At the beginning of the film director Jaume Collet-Serra – with whom Neeson made the equally claustrophobic mystery Non-Stop set on an airplane – makes the unfolding of days and seasons intertwine with Michael having repetitive conversations with fellow passengers including Walt (Jonathan Banks). It is a clever way to show the endless cycle that the commuters with whom Michael is familiar experience travel during all kinds of weather, and though the montage seems like exposition it will become important later in the film.
After losing his job after ten years Michael goes to the pub to have a drink with his former police partner Murphy (Patrick Wilson). Murphy chides him for not telling his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) about losing his job. They chit-chat some more and are interrupted by Michael’s old sergeant Hawthorne (Sam Neill) who has since made captain. Judging by Murphy’s attitude toward Hawthorne, we get the idea he’s not the best guy in the world, but Michael is cordial with him, and the interaction provides foreshadowing that audiences will recall in a scene toward the end of the film.
Once on board the train Michael encounters a woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who engages him in some banter, and though trying to read a book Michael is polite with her. Joanna then makes him a proposition – he can earn $100,000 if he can find someone who doesn’t belong on the train who goes by the name Prin. All he has to do is place a tracking device on that person’s bag and he earns the money.
Michael stares at her incredulously at first, but Joanna insists this is a real deal and that he can find $25,000 in the train bathroom. If he accepts the cash then he is in on the deal. She quickly gets off the train at the next stop, and Michael goes into the bathroom and does discover the money.
When speaking with Joanna she posed an interesting question: “What kind of person are you?” Michael thinks about the money that he really needs since he is now unemployed and what is being asked of him. Neeson does a great job of conveying his emotions with a tortured expression on his face to answer that question. He cannot in good conscience go ahead with the plan because he is not certain what will happen to the person he is supposed to find.
After a couple of tense phone calls with Joanna, Michael is made to understand that he is in on the plan because he took the money from the bathroom and there is no turning back. When a stranger delivers his wife’s wedding ring to him at the next station, Michael realizes what the stakes are and he decides to go forward with the plan but to do things his way.
The rest of the way is spoiler city, and I do not want to ruin anything because part of the joy in this film is seeing Michael struggle to figure everything out. He goes about his plan but gets interrupted by those on the train that may be working for Joanna, and the tension gets ratcheted up several notches when Michael has to fight someone.
The fight scenes are particularly well plotted out, considering that they are taking place on a moving train in tight spaces. Roque Baños’s intense music and Paul Cameron’s deft photography capture the intensity of these moments and produce palpable tension. Michael maintains his own but he gets beaten up as well and seems thoroughly exhausted after these encounters.
The characters on the train all seem very much from New York – Adam Nagaitis stands out as Jimmy the conductor who provides comic relief – and that lends credibility to the story. Michael’s search for Prin is tense because the clock is ticking for the train passengers as well as for his wife and family. Will Michael be able to find the target and still save everyone before it is too late?
The Commuter is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast paced thriller that never stops moving. It should take away any winter blues you may be having. Get on board and enjoy the ride.