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Review

The Commuter

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published January 12, 2018 at 1:47 a.m.

ex-cop-turned-insurance-agent-michael-maccauley-liam-neeson-gets-caught-up-in-a-criminal-conspiracy-during-his-daily-commute-in-jaume-collet-serras-the-commuter

Ex-cop turned insurance agent Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) gets caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute in Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter.

The Commuter

82 Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Florence Pugh, Shazad Latif, Letitia Wright, Killian Scott, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Damson Idris, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

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

Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes

Back in the '80s, the joke went, you never wanted to invite Angela Lansbury to your home for any reason: Wherever she went, someone was always getting murdered. With that in mind, consider the plight of poor Liam Neeson, hunky sexagenarian from Northern Ireland, who has oddly morphed into a well-aged action hero over the last decade.

Since 2008's execrable Taken, Neeson's characters have awakened from comas to find no one knows who they are anymore; survived in the wilds of Alaska after a plane crash and done battle with a pack of wolves; been forced to shoot his way out of trouble on a plane in midflight after receiving texts that the passengers will be executed; been forced on the lam all night long in trying to save his son from an angry mob boss; and, of course, defended virtually every member of his family and his estranged wife several times over from would-be human traffickers.

Neeson has carved out a solid decade of high-concept, moderately budgeted action fare largely on the strength of his everyman persona. He doesn't mess with sci-fi stuff, or anything involving fantastical elements -- he leaves that kind of thing to Tom Cruise -- his action films have been grounded in the day-to-day, which makes this, er, vehicle more or less in perfect keeping with his branding: Michael (Neeson), a long retired ex-cop turned insurance agent, on the day he is laid off, gets propositioned to make $100K by a stranger who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga) on his regular commuter train just to identify a mysterious passenger on the train and insert a GPS responder in that passenger's bag.

Initially, he doesn't believe the offer, but shortly after Joanna exits the train, he goes to retrieve the packet of money, exactly as she described. With virtually no idea of what he's meant to do or why, he hesitates to take anything further, until it is made clear to him that he's being monitored at every turn and his wife and sons are in mortal danger if he doesn't do exactly what is asked of him.

Eventually, Michael gets more and more hysterical in the search for the elusive passenger known only as "Prin" (intentionally misspelled to preserve the mystery), attempting to loop his former partner (Patrick Wilson) into the situation, oddly interrogating everyone including a young ticket taker (Adam Nagaitis), an obnoxious yuppie broker (Shazad Latif), and a scared nurse (Clara Lago), and getting more and more confused as to the conspiracy that has been so carefully orchestrated around him.

So carefully orchestrated, it must be said, that the bevy of screenwriters credited for the caper, have crafted yet another thriller which involves a nefarious plan so meticulously organized and prearranged, with everything timing out perfectly in every way, it becomes pretty clear early on it would have been much, much easier and more efficient to actually just dispatch a single, trained assassin to do the work instead. As the story gets more embroiled, it becomes less coherent and amusing, climaxing as it does with a massive train derailment, a hostage situation, and a final bit of flimflammery that's truly just nonsensical.

Still, it's a far cry less appalling than Neeson's vicious, retired super-agent in the Taken films, and holds together at least somewhat better than some of his other mystery thrillers. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, reuniting with Neeson after the pair made several of these action flicks, including Unknown and Non-Stop, actually constructs a reasonably taut first act, where the details of each passenger flitting past us might actually turn out to be relevant later on.

There are a handful of moments, such as when Michael identifies a seemingly insignificant detail (whether someone is right-handed or not) and uses it to hone in on his quarry, where the film gets buoyed up slightly beyond its preposterous premise. It also takes its sweet time in the beginning, getting us onto the train with a series of well-edited jump cuts over what is meant to be the many years Michael has spent tooling to and from the city for his job, like every other schnook in a suit and tie, hoping to last long enough to make retirement.

If the film too quickly builds into hysteria -- at one point, with Michael fighting for his life, crawling out from under a moving locomotive, and discovering a dead body under the train, it occurred to me that the entire far-fetched enterprise might just be some sort of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" scenario, triggered because he was so miserable to have to tell his wife about being laid off, but alas, that proved overly optimistic -- at least it takes a few minutes to ground its protagonist. Early in the film, trying to convince a young married couple to buy life insurance, he tells them the story of how he and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) had scrimped and saved to build up their retirement portfolios only to have the mortgage meltdown of 2008 wipe everything away.

In fact, the film works pretty hard to make Michael as likable as possible -- the only reason he even considers taking the woman's assignment is because he got laid off and his oldest son is about to embark upon an expensive, private college education. He's a man of the people, who only wanted to do the right thing as a cop, which is why he finally couldn't take it anymore. He's so squeaky clean, when he's first approached by Joanna, he holds up his wedding band and gently informs her he's married, just so there's no confusion (like Mike Pence with a strong right hook).

Initially, the woman pitches the plan to Michael as a kind of ethical hypothetical: If you had the chance to make a lot of money by doing something seemingly insignificant to a complete stranger, would you do it? The film isn't written carefully or craftily enough to actually consider that question. You would need a much heavier Hitchcockian influence for that sort of thing, but I guess we can give it a golf clap or two for trying.

MovieStyle on 01/12/2018

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