The conceit of The Commuter is a simple one: A man must accomplish a certain task under the watchful eye of a Big Brother-type evil organization with a fuzzy end game. The degree to which the screenwriters (Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle) commit to this conceit is impressive, at least until a third act that spins rather cartoonishly off-the-rails (if you'll pardon the pun). Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes the most of the meticulously production-designed train that serves as the setting for the majority of our story, weaving in and out of its confined spaces to create a sense of claustrophobia alongside the paranoia that sets in.
In other words, for just long enough to count, the movie works as a pretty effective thriller of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink variety. Part of it is the confidence to follow through on its conceit, but an equal part is the decision to cast Liam Neeson as the lead. The actor's rise in the action genre as one of its sure things has been an unexpected joy to watch unfold, whatever the individual quality of each film that has showcased it (It has certainly been as hit-or-miss, even within the context of Neeson's collaborations with Collet-Serra). Here, he plays Michael MacCauley, a former cop who is now an insurance agent. As the film begins, and following a prologue establishing a formula for his comfortable life with his family, Michael loses his job.
It comes, as any job loss does, at the least opportune moment even remotely considerable. He and his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) were victims of the housing bubble of 2008, forced to liquidate their assets. Now, they have two mortgages, and their son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) is about to go off to a prestigious university. The screenplay disrupts the established order of Michael's life essentially by framing its central narrative as a literal disruption of that formula. The montage that begins the film doesn't end so much as it merely extends itself straight into that narrative, meaning that the film has a laser-like focus upon it.
While on the high-speed train on which he travels to and from work, he is approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga). The exchange begins as friendly enough. She claims to be a student of human behavior and asks him a hypothetical question: If he could do something meaningful for a sizable sum of money, without knowing the consequences of his actions, would he do that thing? It becomes clear rather quickly, of course, that the question is not hypothetical: There is someone on the train who does not belong and is carrying something they stole. If Michael finds them, he will receive a total of $100,000.
What follows is both easy to predict (in his attempts both to find the person in question and to seek help from a couple of former fellow cops, played by Sam Neill and Patrick Wilson) and enjoyable in its various divergences from expectations (in how the screenwriters follow the example of Agatha Christie by dropping some seemingly impossible happenings into the proceedings on this train). Sure, the movie quite literally jumps the rails with a climax that must solve every mystery in as loud a fashion as possible. Then again, that goes hand-in-hand with the rest of The Commuter, a part-silly, mostly clever action-thriller that knows what it wants to accomplish and does it with efficiency.
Liam Neeson (Michael MacCauley), Vera Farmiga (Joanna), Patrick Wilson (Alex Murphy), Andy Nyman (Tony), Jonathan Banks (Walt), Killian Scott (Dylan), Shazad Latif (Vince), Clara Lago (Eva), Roland Moller (Jackson), Florence Pugh (Gwen), Colin McFarlane (Sam), Dean-Charles Chapman (Danny MacCauley), Ella-Rae Smith (Sofia), Elizabeth McGovern (Karen MacCauley), Sam Neill (Capt. Hawthorne).
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle.
Rated PG-13 (intense action/violence, language).
Released on January 12, 2018.