When an action movie comes along with a name as dumb as The Commuter, you certainly don't expect it to be surprisingly clever from the start. But, I rather liked the way we are introduced to Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), in a pleasant montage of his morning routine -- barely moving forward from the same moment each day, from several instances of him waking up in bed at 6 a.m. until we see him riding his commuter train to work. We see varying degrees of his relationship with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, criminally underused) and son.
And then one day, along comes this unfamiliar lady on the train, played with controlled sinisterness by Vera Fermiga. Farmiga is herself a strong, memorable presence, and even she doesn't get enough screen time. It's fun to see her as a villain.
And, sure, the concept is as dumb as it seems. This woman, who introduces herself as Joanna, proposes MacCauley find a bag of money in the bathroom, by doing so agreeing to the proposition before him: find the person on the train who "doesn't belong," who goes by "Prim," and plant a tracking device on their bag. Supposedly, that's it. Except that when he deviates from the plan, Joanna has deboarded the train and keeps calling him to tell him he must do what he agreed to or else his family will get killed.
What follows is basically a cross between Taken and Runaway Train. There's nothing especially new to the storytelling here, but I must admit, I enjoyed The Commuter way more than I expected to. I'll even confess the single reason I even went to see it was because choices for new movies in theatres have been truly terrible for weeks, worse than it's been for years in the month of January. I literally saw The Commuter because I there appeared to be nothing better to see.
The critical consensus is mixed, and that makes sense. But The Commuter is one of those movies where the reviews arguably don't matter -- it's a certain type of movie that some people go looking for, and those people get what they're looking for. It's nothing special, but it delivers.
And to its credit, The Commuter, in spite of a script that is mediocre at best, has solid performances, and is edited in such a way that it's consistently suspenseful from beginning to end. It's fairly unpredictable, considering how contrived it is. It has a few surprises up its sleeve, and it has a great train derailment sequence that is as riveting as it is stupid. Sure, Liam Neeson leaps between train cars in slow motion like he's in a Mission: Impossible movie, but who cares? We're all having fun.
Liam Neeson may be the unlikeliest of action stars working today, although his rebirth as one in Taken now occurred a full ten years ago, in 2008. At that time, he was a 56-year-old playing 51 -- and here, he's a 66-year-old playing sixty. Hollywood aging at work, I guess. Neeson plays it well, though. He gets all the memorably cornball lines, playing regular working people with special skills learned at a former job in law enforcement -- this time, a former cop. He has a younger ex-partner friend played by Luke Wilson, and there's a captain they both resent played by Sam Niell. They all seem to know what kind of movie they're in -- and it's one that works better than most movies of its ilk.
In other words, The Commuter delivers the thrills you expect from it, without insulting your intelligence, at least not to an unbearable level. Here is a movie that seems to understand there's a line to draw with suspension of disbelief, and it stops just short of it. It's pretty forgettable in the long run, but entertains just the way you want while you're watching it.