For years now, there’s been a particular genre of action cinema that has consistently lured moviegoers to the box office—films in which Liam Neeson has “a very particular set of skills.” Starting with Taken in 2008, Neeson began a second life as a gritty hero, someone with a talent for violence and a long, but explosive, fuse. Within this genre is an even more exciting sub-genre: films in which Neeson plays a man with considerably fewer skills, but a very healthy amount of desperation. The Commuter fits squarely into this latter category, and it’s all the more enjoyable for it.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is 60 years old (a fact he repeats a lot throughout the film). He sells life insurance, he lives with his wife and son in the suburbs, and he commutes every day to New York on the Metro-North railroad. He’s a former NYPD cop, but that doesn’t make him Sherlock Holmes—at best, he just has a better eye for details and the ability to throw a punch. As the movie begins, Michael loses his job, leaving him worried for his family’s future as he gets ready to send his kid to college. Then, as he rides the train home, things start to get a lot stranger.
Jaume Collet-Serra, the film’s wonderful director, has always exulted in details—it’s what helps him stand out as an artist even though he mostly makes this kind of easily dismissed genre fare. He’s collaborated with Neeson four times now (having also made Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night) and has a couple of inventive horror thrillers (Orphan, The Shallows) to his name. From minute one, The Commuter is filled with little hints that will end up mattering to the plot at large, and half the fun is watching Collet-Serra toss them into the margins of the frame and see if the viewer will notice.
The Commuter’s opening montage is far more artful than one might ever expect from a mid-budget action thriller coming out in January, playing out Michael’s daily routine over and over again in a series of cross-cutting scenes. We see him drive to the station with his wife, banter with his son about the book of the month they’re reading together, and say hi to his fellow passengers on the train. The viewer can spot little differences each time (he’s in a rush one day, he’s bickering with his wife on another) while also buying into that comforting sense of sameness.
By the time Michael boards that train to go home, anxious and depressed about his lost job, the audience is already familiar with his entire life and understands how it will be thrown into chaos. Collet-Serra has also already laid the groundwork for Michael’s relationships with the other regulars on the Metro-North, which is going to matter. Because then a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from Michael and makes an odd request: If he can find a specific passenger on the train who “doesn’t belong” and is carrying mysterious cargo, he’ll walk away with $100,000.
What will happen to this traveler who doesn’t belong? Michael doesn’t know. Who is this woman Joanna, who immediately disembarks after making her proposition? No idea. But Michael is an ex-cop with two mortgages and a kid to send to college; the idea of free money for a simple detective job is enough to get the ball rolling. And once Michael starts trying to suss out who this mysterious passenger could be, well, things get dangerous fast.
Much like with Collet-Serra and Neeson’s previous collaboration Non-Stop (which was set entirely on an airplane), there’s an Agatha Christie element to The Commuter’s plot. The film is light on action set pieces (at least, until the last 20 minutes, when things really go to hell) and heavy on tense, loaded conversations with passengers. Forget Murder on the Orient Express, this is Vague Mystery on the Hudson Line, with Michael playing the part of a sweaty Hercule Poirot who’s at the end of his rope. Michael knows his pals, the regular riders of the train, aren’t of interest to Joanna—she’s looking for someone who doesn’t belong. From there, it becomes a process of elimination.
It’s almost charming watching the film find various ways to use the limited confines of a suburban commuter train in service of a nervy action thriller. There’s a claustrophobic fistfight between carriages that’s all elbows and throat-grabs, and a clever use of a non-air-conditioned car that’s empty and thus free for Michael to conduct more intense interrogations. There are altercations with the typically annoying sorts of passengers—the stockbroker yelling on his Bluetooth headset, the guy playing his iPhone game too loud—but does their behavior make them worthy of the nefarious fate Joanna intends for her target?
The mystery unfolds with satisfying competence, drawing Michael into Joanna’s spider web in ways he doesn’t see coming, and pressuring him to dig up new levels of resourcefulness to push back against her demands. In films like Taken and their ilk, Neeson plays men of boundless threat who could snap any criminal’s neck if pushed to. I much prefer movies like The Commuter, where we get to see Neeson urgently summon the ability to survive whatever wacky situation he’s been forced into. He may come out the other side looking much worse for wear. But you’ll be all the more impressed with him for pulling it off.