Saturday, 20 January 2018

Movie Review: The Commuter (2018)

The plot: Insurance salesman Michael (Liam Neeson) is taking the train home, same as he has done consistently for the last ten years. However, this trip turns out to be decidedly different as he is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition. She tells him that someone on the train doesn’t belong, and he has until the end of the line to figure out who it is. As a reward, he will be given $100,000 once he locates the person and places a tracker on their person. As he considers the proposal, it seems that shadowy forces are about to force his hand, and if he doesn’t do as the woman asked, he could end up losing everything.

We have Liam Neeson playing yet another father with a past life involving access to firearms who needs to save his family from an impossible situation. Typecasting does many things, the most obvious of which being making a single actor’s body of work mesh seamlessly together out of how monotonous it inevitably gets. However, I’m still thankful that while Neeson may get given the exact same role year after year since Taken came out nearly a decade ago, he is still quite efficient in that role. He hits the action beats well and he even gets in a couple of decent one-liners, like his final words to a broker from Goldman Sachs in one of the more cathartic moments that don’t involve some form of bloodshed.

Farmiga works well enough as the character who sets the main story in motion, something done quite nicely given she mainly exists as a voice on a phone. Patrick Wilson as Michael’s former partner Murph, for as reduced as his role is, gives the kind of natural charm that you would expect from an actor of his pedigree; Jonathan Banks as one of the regulars on the train has pretty solid chemistry with Neeson in their scenes together; Andy Nyman makes for one of the more memorable presences on-screen; and Adam Nagaitis as one of the conductors on the train does quite well with the comic relief role he’s been saddled with.

There’s a very, very feel of the familiar about this production, and it only starts with Liam Neeson’s casting. There’s also how this shares both the director and one of the writers of Neeson’s previous venture Non-Stop, even sharing a rather interchangeable plot to that film. Knowing how assembly-line a lot of Hollywood productions can feel at the best of times, this is not a good preamble for a new feature. Then again, that feeling of having seen the same thing over and over again is where the film itself actually starts. Through some incredibly nimble editing courtesy of Nicolas de Toth, we see several separated mornings with Michael and his family spliced together, showing that despite some minor differences, Michael is a creature of routine.

This sets a nice bedrock to be shaken up by the events of the film, aided by how well-worn Neeson’s cred as a reluctant action lead is by this point. As for the mystery that does the majority of the shaking up, it’s handled well enough to the point where all the pieces seem to fit together and the overlapping sources of tension keep things engaging throughout. Of course, said mystery is weakened by how “it’s a conspiracy” is about as close to an explanation for what’s going on as we get; Non-Stop may have had a nonsensical wrap-up, but it at least had real motivation to it beyond what could easily be interpreted as either Deep State shenanigans or Illuminati shenanigans. Decide for yourself which one is the more ridiculous.

As for the action cred of the production, director Jaume Collet-Serra gets to flex his experience with high-concept thrillers like The Shallows to allow for some pretty intense moments. The fight scenes are blocked rather well and they benefit from DOP Paul Cameron’s ability to deliver on long-take action beats. Well, mostly deliver and in this instance, it’s also Cameron who falls short. There’s a scene prior to the main plot with Michael and Murph at a bar talking about the good ol’ days, and the camera never stays still for even a second during it. I don’t know if this was meant to emulate the wooziness one would associate with a place that sells alcohol, but given how the scenes on the frequently-turbulent train are actually steadier than what we see here, it feels incredibly out-of-place. There’s also some pretty dodgy-looking CGI used in a lot of places, some more obvious than others, that end up giving this a serious B-movie look to it. Yes, even more of a B-movie vibe than having Liam Neeson as the lead actor.

More so than fiddling around with the aesthetic choices, though, I personally find the themes within the script rather interesting. It plays off of the surface-level notions of its main concept, that being trying to pick out the one person who doesn’t belong in a confined space, but also delves into questions about how one is supposed to find an “outsider” in such a group in the first place. Or, more specifically, whether it is even necessary to do so. As Michael starts to dig deeper into his own desperation to find the person he is being forced to identify, we see him start to question whether his “you’re not a regular on this train, are you” methods will get him anywhere. Sure, picking out someone you barely know seems easy enough, but how well does he actually know the ‘regulars’?

Through this, the film shifts from a look at exasperated paranoia brought on by outside forces into a admission that picking out the irregulars (or, to use a more familiar term, the foreigners) is a short-sighted approach. Hell, the film even gets into not only how your closest ally could turn out to be the snake in the grass, but also how extenuating circumstances can force people into positions where they must do awful things to survive, either figuratively in the workforce or literally in the world at large. Just comply, do what you’re told, and everything will be fine… until we have to call on you again, which is a definite reality. Michael, as a thematic entity, rejects this. He goes through the usual trappings of a pseudo-hostage thriller in trying to save everyone involved as best he can, as well as showing that paranoia isn’t nearly as strong as moral conviction. Good guys may get hurt when they try and act noble, but it’s still better than being strong-armed into contributing to the problem. Have to admit, for a film this wonky in a lot of areas, I can see a lot of use in a sentiment like that.

All in all, this is yet another boilerplate bit of Neesonsploitation that has just enough to it to help separate it from the pack. The acting is good, the technical aspects range from the solid to the bordering-on-Asylum, and while the writing may skimp on some of the more concrete details, it uses its main story concept as a vehicle to deliver some pretty poignant ideas about how we perceive other people and how larger forces can exploit that perception to their own ends. I’m still more than a little tired of seeing these films every year, but for what it’s worth, it’s still an alright flick.

It ranks higher than The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature, as this may be samey but it at least felt like it had some modicum of a reason to exist. Nut Job 2 holds no such distinction, to the point where I am quite baffled that it didn’t just go straight-to-home-media and instead got an actual theatrical release. However, in comparison to another salient but muddled feature, it falls short of All The Money In The World, whose higher points (namely the socioeconomic commentary and Christopher Plummer’s performance) outdo the best that this film has to offer. That, and it doesn’t look nearly as cheap as this ultimately does.

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