Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Commuter (2018)

Cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is having a very interesting day. He’s fired from his job, leaving him and his family apparently one step from losing their house and the ability to pay their son’s college tuition. Capitalism without a social net sucks, it turns out. This will only be a minor problem on this very special day our protagonist is having, though, for a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) chats him up on his final commuter train journey home and makes him a proposition, a perfectly theoretical one, she says. What if she’d offer him a hundred thousand dollar to find someone one the train going by the codename of “Prinn” (disappointingly not named after Ludwig, it turns out). The only thing to go on is that he or she is not a regular commuter, is planning to get out at a certain station, and is carrying some type of bag apparently containing something they stole. Why the woman would be looking for Prinn and what she wants to do with them stays open. Oh, and by the way, the proposal might not be theoretical at all.

When Michael picks up a twenty-five thousand down payment hidden in one of the train’s toilets, he is shortly tempted to actually do what is asked of him, but he changes his mind back to sanity quickly enough. Unfortunately, the woman and her associates are not at all willing to take no for an answer, so, this being a post-Taken Liam Neeson joint, they are threatening his family if he doesn’t comply. Now Michael has to hustle back and forth through (and sometimes down) the train, trying to identify Prinn, all the while attempting to come up with a way to save his family as well as Prinn and himself.

Yes, this is another highly (some might say too highly) constructed thriller starring Liam Neeson as an aging tough guy stumbling into a thriller plot and having to protect his family and his moral center through violence, and his moral centre in whatever way he can come up with. There’s nothing at all wrong with that for my taste, for while there’s certainly nothing original about The Commuter’s plot, and I could certainly could do with seeing Neeson playing a very different type of character from time to time, this is also a very typical Jaume Collet-Serra film. If you’ve read my opinions on most of his other films, you will know where the next paragraph is going. I like his work so much, I’ll even watch something based on a Disney theme park directed by him.

That is to say, The Commuter was made by a director who can usually (let’s pretend Non-Stop doesn’t exist) take a very standard, overly twisty script and turn it into something very much worth watching by filming even the most clichéd plot in a way that suggests he actually cares about it. So while there are moments of too convenient plotting, a bit of action movie physics (we all know that action scenes don’t care about how trains work, yet neither do I in this context), and a copious amount of clichés on display, they are presented with absolute willingness by the filmmaker to suck his audience in and entertain it in any way possible. There is nothing lazy about Collet-Serra’s treatment of any of the film’s copious suspense scenes, the staging is tight when it should be tight and loose when it needs to be loose, the whole affair doing whatever it can never to be boring for a second, without ever making the impression of trying to pressgang the audience (or, for that matter, of thinking it is stupid).

When it comes to this sort of action-y thriller, getting an audience to suspend its disbelief can be as important as in a film concerning the supernatural if a film wants its audience to care. Collet-Serra achieves this goal through moments of veracity. Michael’s money problems are of course ripped from the headlines but also ground the film in a believable reality, making it easy for an audience that knows this kind of problem well enough to care for him, yet also pulling extra work by making the film’s world more believable. The same goes for the other characters in the train. While all of them are certainly shorthand characters, they stand as shorthand for contemporary types one might actually encounter in real life, again suggesting the film inhabiting a believable world. Collet-Serra’s job here is made easier by the cast. While the bigger names in the cast - Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and his lone facial expression, Elizabeth McGovern and Sam Neill - apart from frequent Collet-Serra collaborator Neeson (who has this kind of role down pat without projecting bored routine) - are only in the film in what amounts to cameo role, the merry cast of character actors in the train does much to sell the story through small but important gestures, keeping the shorthand alive and lively.

As an added bonus, I found myself rather happy with the lack of cynicism in the film. In the end, this turns out to be a tale singing the praises of the decency of random people, even though it tells a tale of twists and betrayals, not exactly something you often find in thrillers about Liam Neeson protecting his family.

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