Few actors have had more unexpected career makeovers than Liam Neeson. Prior to the release of 2009’s Taken, Neeson was in a place where he was frequently being cast in the role of wise mentor, whether it was the beloved Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace or voicing Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Even in Batman Begins, where he is revealed to be the film’s villain, Neeson spends the majority of his scenes as a teacher rather than an attacker.
Then along came the trailer for Taken, in which Neeson growled his words into a phone in such a badass and intimidating way that it was enough to turn the movie into a surprise–and extremely leggy–blockbuster. Neeson had been reinvented in the public’s eye, and he’s almost created a genre of his own: when you go into a movie of his these days, you know almost exactly what you’re going to get. He’s a man living a domestic life with some form of a violent past. Though he’ll be perfectly calm for the first twenty minutes or so, something or someone will activate his “Liam Neeson punching chip” and then he will go off. People around him will often question his morals, but ultimately, he’s the hero they all grow to either respect or get their butts whooped by. And The Commuter, for better or for worse, is no different.
Neeson plays Michael, a businessman who’s struggling with finding the money to get his son into college while also juggling around the mortgage. He’s unceremoniously fired by his boss in the least delicate way possible, and as he meets up with an old partner of his (Patrick Wilson) from his law enforcement days, he begins to regret how he’s lived his life. Things take a turn when a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanne (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition on his daily commute home: if he can find a passenger on the train who “doesn’t belong,” she will pay him $100,000. And $25,000 is already hidden in the bathroom for him to let him know she’s being serious.
If you’ve seen the trailer–which gives away a lot–you know that this involves the passenger in question being assassinated, though why exactly Joanne even needs Michael for this when she apparently has an untold amount of power (including the ability to spy on him everywhere he goes and have his longtime friend run over by a bus when he tries to get him to call the police) remains sketchy. But part of the appeal of these types of movies is that they do have a tendency to get extremely ridiculous, making The Commuter a popcorn cruncher with a brain which it is more than willing to frequently park at the door.
Neeson, however, always treats these films like they’re Oscar-caliber drama. As Michael, he emits a sense of world-weariness and middle-class bitterness, his voice attempting to sound as casual as he can muster as he is unable to have the guts to tell his wife he has lost his job. There’s a morbid, resigned desperation to him, and the brief moment of bliss he experiences upon finding the promised amount of money next to a restroom toilet is a testament to his skills as an actor. His eyes glint and he lets out a subtle laugh before immediately second-guessing himself on the matter, and he becomes as unsure about his motives as the audience does, wondering what exactly he is going to do with the passenger in question once he finds them (though, again, the trailer does give away a lot on this matter, and if you have been able to avoid it until now, I would suggest you keep it that way).
Still, this is a post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller, which means there are plenty of scenes that alternate between suspenseful and gloriously silly. You want to see Neeson stuck under a moving train in a Hitchcockian-style moment of nail-biting? How about a fight scene in which Neeson gets to beat the living shit out of someone with a fucking guitar? Or a train crash sequence in which Neeson gets thrown through the air and smashes his chest into the top of another car but doesn’t suffer a single broken rib?
That train derailment, for what it’s worth, is something which is rather oddly placed in terms of pacing, as it plays like the film’s climax when there is still another twenty five minutes of the movie to go afterwards (also, how ironic is it that it’s Paddington 2–which you really should see–that has the best train-related action sequence currently in theaters right now?). The Commuter has a ton of plot twists thrown into its final reel, but to its credit none of them are as hilariously eye-rolling as the “villains hijacked a plane because they were upset about 9/11” revelation that happened towards the end of Non-Stop. The movie also, intentionally or not, makes an effort to not come across as borderline xenophobic as the first Taken did, and a moment in which Michael begins racial-profiling another passenger is appropriately uncomfortable.
All in all, The Commuter delivers exactly what Neeson’s fans will want from it as this point, and is probably the closest thing we will get to an 80’s style star-driver thriller these days. While many may wish that Neeson would do more movies that wouldn’t fall into the “B-movie actioner with an A-list actor” category, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, The Commuter is plenty of fun.
(As an aside, if you want to see what might be Neeson’s best film of the last decade, check out The Grey, which probably had the most misleading marketing campaign of recent memory)