Review: The Commuter


The header image above isn’t even from The Commuter, that’s how ubiquitous images of Liam Neeson holding a gun on a train have become. Actually, it is from The Commuter, here’s the one that’s not.

Actually, I can’t even remember which is which; honestly, it doesn’t really matter.

The Commuter (2018 Movie) Official Teaser Trailer - Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga

The Commuter
Directors: Jaume Collett-Serra
Rating: R
Release Date: January 12, 2018

Marvel has received many accolades since it began the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, and rightfully so. What people have failed to acknowledge is the success of the other, lesser recognized cinematic universe, the Liam Neeson Taken Cinematic Universe which began that same year with the release of Taken. In the intervening decade, Liam Neeson has grown his universe and showed off a certain set of skills in Unknown (2011), The Grey (2011), Taken 2 (2012), Non-Stop (2014), A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), Taken 3 (2014), Run All Night (2015), The Commuter (2018), and even a brief appearance in Ted 2 (2015). All told, not even counting his integral contribution to Ted 2, these films have already grossed close to $1.5 billion worldwide. Sure, Marvel’s numbers are higher, both in films and total gross, but Neeson’s production numbers are a fraction of theirs. He’s made more money in history than anyone from purely sticking a gun in someone’s face and threatening, “I will kill you.”

With that established, let’s get to Liam Neeson on a Train, the follow-up to 2014’s Liam Neeson on a Plane. In true form, it brings back director Jaume Collett-Serra and screenwriter Ryan Engle.  Neeson does what he always does with the same implacable and blank face that expresses a lack of comprehension of how this could happen to him, but we get something different this time–proving that just because you use the same ingredients, you’re not guaranteed the same results with a different recipe.

There’s something intrinsically sad and indelibly real about the first 5 minutes of this movie. In a montage that cuts back and forth between any given day in the life of a commuter. We see Michael MacCauley (Neeson) wake to the same radio show, go through the same morning ritual, and interact with his wife and children (no need to name names here—they’re entirely irrelevant) as their emotional moods towards one another shift from joy to anger to sorrow and back again. If you’ve never experienced the joys of commuting to Manhattan on a train and feel you want to, this pretty much sums up the human experience of doing the same thing, 5 days a week, for 10 years. Time flies, you get older, little changes, and at the end of it, you get fired. MacCauley’s clothes change, the seasons change, some days his wife drops him off at the Tarrytown train station cursing him out, and others, they part like teenage lovers.

I’m spending the words here, as it’s the most real part of the film (and arguably the best part), and with a runtime of 1 hour and 44 minutes, that means you have 99 minutes of shit to sift through with your bare hands still to come.

It’s around this time that you learn that MacCauley — average everyman, commuter-slash-insurance salesman, age 60 — has only been a commuter for 10 years(!). Prior to that, he was … drum role please: a cop. BOOM! You did not see that coming! Insurance salesmen have no skills, but cops, you better believe, have a certain set of skills! And, as usual, someone is going to force Liam Neeson to use them at their own peril. People will die. Liam Neeson will get a gun, and he’ll likely point it in someone’s face, but there’s no reason to talk about any of that, because as established, this is rubbish.

Artistic license, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a colloquial term, sometimes a euphemism, used to denote the distortion of fact … made by an artist in the name of art.” Key words, artist and art. Neither are present here.

In trying to take advantage of a commute north up the Hudson from Grand Central Terminal to Cold Spring as the setting for a dramatic action movie, Collett-Serra and team change about every aspect of the ride they can, improving nothing, and losing credibility:

  • These train cars do not exist. 
  • The sounds are wrong for the train this is implied to be. 
  • The platforms are wrong. 
  • There are no tables on these trains. 
  • There are no stops in NYC south of Harlem-125th
  • The train does not stop, on schedule, every four minutes. 
  • The commuters on commuter trains do not all know each other, or even recognize most every face, even those who are or were cops. 
  • Electrical access panels are not open for people to fiddle with. 
  • The views out the window are wrong (nearly always). 
  • The laws of physics are wrong—scenery in the foreground would move by at a faster pace than scenery in the background, guys. 
  • There aren’t convenient charts of stop zones for passengers plastered in train cars. 
  • The onboard bathrooms are not nearly that clean. 
  • If police were searching for someone on a train, they would actually board the train, immediately, not peer in its windows. 
  • You couldn’t hide from the police, or anyone on one of these trains. 
  • Just because the AC is out doesn’t mean there won’t be people in a car. There are always plenty of people. 
  • Most ridiculous of all, you could never, ever run alongside one of these trains long enough to keep pace, and then jump on somehow.

Also, too much of this movie is CGI. Most of it. I’d wager Liam Neeson spent less than a day on an actual train car. Suspension of disbelief can be hard to achieve when a movie demands you do it for its entirety with no payoff offered in return. What about this is deserving of our ignoring the fantastic, when the less-than-fantastic isn’t even remotely accurate?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Liam Neeson Cinematic Universe. It’s brought me a lot of mindless joy over the past 10 years. But this is over the top ridiculousness that makes no sense. If whomever Liam Neeson’s tormentors are (note that I’m dropping the pretense of this being a character unique to this movie—it’s just Neeson in his universe) are as all-powerful, and all-seeing as they seem to be, why do they need to involve Neeson at all? It makes no sense. Nothing that happens makes any sense at any step along the way. I expected to be laughing at the usual ridiculousness, not shaking my head at just how unbelievably ridiculous it was.

And by the time we get to the film’s non-dramatic conclusion, when:

  • A police Captain from New York has somehow driven up to Cold Spring in the same time the train has made it there (impossible—this is exactly why people commute on trains in the first place) 
  • And taken command of battalions of SWAT team members 60 miles north of his jurisdiction
  • SWAT that use non-existent thermal imaging that distinguishes good guy bodies from bad guy bodies through the walls of a train car!

I was contemplating whether or not anyone else in my theater was buying this shit on any level, even though we all expected it to be bad. 

Did anyone even think about what they wrote when they wrote this? Did anyone involved in the making of the first five minutes of this movie, which detailed everything that makes being human and trying to support a family in America contribute to the movie beyond that point?

This past year, Liam Neeson said he was done making action movies, and maybe he should be. This was a marked step down in quality from what was already a low, unimaginative bar. This guy used to play Oscar Schindler for Pete’s sake. Get back to chasing that Oscar gold, Mr. Neeson or at least give us another Darkman