One of the great guilty pleasures of 21st Century cinema has been watching Liam Neeson transform from prestige picture headliner into down-and-dirty action flick badass. Ever since ‘Taken’, Neeson has been the one action star you and your father-in-law can agree on, and he’s never better than when partnered with Spanish genre specialist Jaume Collet-Serra (‘Non-Stop’, ‘Run All Night’). ‘The Commuter’ is their latest collaboration and one of their silliest, which also means it’s one of their best, a throwback to the cartoonish high-concept action movies that kept Blockbuster Video in business back in simpler times.
Towering and growling Neeson stars as Michael MacCauley, a former New York City detective who left the force early when he got tired of dodging corruption and wanted to raise a family. Since then, he’s been commuting into Manhattan to sell insurance. A beautifully constructed jump-cut and time-lapse heavy opening credit sequence eloquently shows how deeply embedded he is in that routine through delightful show-off filmmaking that condenses a year into a couple minutes.
Of course, this is an action flick and not a character study of a troubled family man, so MacCauley’s almost instantly fired from his job and finds himself drinking away his sorrows at a watering hole while struggling to decide how to break the truth to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern). His old partner (Patrick Wilson) just happens to wander in and rants about his boss (Sam Neill) to establish all the necessary backstory. Then MacCauley is whisked away to Grand Central Station and onto his commuter train so that this pulpy nonsense can kick off. Once on that speedy metal tube, he’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him $100,000 if he can drum up his old detective skills to find a single passenger and shove a tracking device on them. Obviously, that deal is involuntary, filled with dirty secrets, and more than anyone other than Liam Neeson could handle.
It goes without saying that ‘The Commuter’ is an absolutely ridiculous and downright bonkers movie. Are there attempts to make it seem as though MacCauley’s home life is something resembling reality and worth dramatic investment? Obviously, but only what’s necessary and not a second more. What interests Collet-Serra is delightfully and deliberately silly spectacle-driven filmmaking, not human drama. Everything is heightened, every performance pitched just slightly below a ‘Looney Tunes’ character. The camera rarely stops moving, but always with purpose. The director expertly crafts a sense of space and establishes characters through small details to get the mystery pumping. There’s not a moment once this crazy train takes off that isn’t in some way pushing the audience’s buttons, whether through paranoid suspense and mystery, camp and character comedy, or good old-fashioned bone-crunching action.
Neeson gets to deliver plenty of what he’s good at, projecting authority and concern while crunching skulls for our entertainment. Collet-Serra gleefully piles one bonkers set-piece on top of the next. (There’s a moment where Neeson slips under the train that’s a classic nail-biter.) While some of the CGI is a bit much, the filmmaker gets away with it because every element of his movie is so over-the-top, from the colors to the camerawork to the performances to the writing. It’s a breathlessly-paced entertainment that shifts gears only to shift how audiences are being manipulated, all hinged on a brilliant action movie plotting device stolen from ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ that allows set-pieces to endlessly pile up on each other because any time one is completed the villain calls the hero to assign another. No time is wasted on the contrivances of storytelling, just one hit after the next.
Best of all, as with all Jaume Collet-Serra flicks, a tongue is plunged deep into a cheek throughout every second of screen time. This filmmaker knows he’s making silly, populist pulp. He doesn’t’ hide it. He leans into it. Is the story getting absurd or the action a few steps beyond reality? Well, then Collet-Serra winks at the audience and lets them giggle at the insanity of it. Many of the best ’90s action flicks did the same. Collet-Serra didn’t invent this tone of cartoonish action filmmaking; he’s just carrying the torch for it in a time when the genre has been taken over by snarky superheroes. There’s something charming and quaint about this director’s nostalgically nutty action fare – especially when headlined by Neeson, who knows it’s always better to play this material deathly straight for maximum dramatic and campy comedic impact.
We could use more of that self-aware nonsense in spectacle-driven entertainment these days. Collet-Serra’s movies aren’t art, but at least they don’t insult the intelligence of those who enjoy such guilty pleasures. At its best, ‘The Commuter’ reaches the giddy heights of Collet-Serra and Neeson’s most charmingly silly hour, ‘Non-Stop’, and feels like it’s only a quick rewrite away from being a fully satisfying sequel. There’s no need for silly Liam Neeson B-movies to get bogged down by continuity. He’s always going to play the same character regardless of the name. Until the aging action star is too old to pull a punch, we should all be grateful that he’s so committed to cranking out these spectacularly stupid hits.