The Commuter movie review: on the wrong track

MaryAnn’s quick take: A lazy, insulting xerox of better movies about Liam Neeson growling into cell phones at enigmatic villains. Devoid of tension and mystery, and rife with plotholes that derail the trip.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Remember a few years ago, when Liam Neeson was on a Non-Stop transatlantic flight between New York and London and mysterious nefarious types texted him to say that they’d kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million was transferred to their account? And how he cares about stopping this because he’s law enforcement — the flight’s air marshal — and doesn’t want anyone to die?

Well, The Commuter is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Here, Liam Neeson is on a TRAIN traveling from New York, yes, but only up the Hudson Valley. And it makes many STOPS at stations. And the mysterious nefarious types TALK to him, in person and on the phone. And they offer him a mere $100,000 to FIND someone on the train. He doesn’t know why they want to find this person but he figures they want to kill that person because this isn’t how you send someone flowers or whatevs, which he doesn’t want to happen because he’s EX law enforcement — a FORMER NYPD detective — and also because he sells life insurance so he knows the value of people. And also also because the bad guys have kidnapped his wife and will kill her if he doesn’t comply. TOTALLY NOT THE SAME MOVIE AT ALL. (Also not like Taken in the least. Nope.)

The Commuter Vera Farmiga Liam Neeson
“Excuse me, is this seat Taken? Is this the Non-Stop train to Tarrytown?”

But the biggest way in which The Commuter is NOT THE SAME MOVIE AT ALL as Non-Stop is that while both movies are utterly preposterous, The Commuter never lets you forget that. Where Non-Stop was rollicking fun, The Commuter is a trial to be endured. Much like a commute itself.

Successful movies getting xeroxed is a fact of Hollywood’s business model (except when it isn’t), but usually they’re not so lazy and transparent about it. It’s as if studio execs got Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, Run All Night) and Neeson (Silence, A Monster Calls) in a room with Non-Stop screenwriter Ryan Engle, threw them the spec script by first-timers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi that had been in development hell for a while, and told them to make another Non-Stop. (In fact, that does seem to be exactly what happened.) “Here’s the template: Just do it again, doesn’t need to be anything fresh or special.” It’s pretty insulting to audiences.

Imitating successful movies is a fact of Hollywood’s business model, but usually they’re not so transparent about it.

Anyway, Vera Farmiga’s (The Conjuring 2, The Judge) mysterious and nefarious “Joanna” (probably not her real name) accosts Neeson’s Michael MacCauley on his Metro-North— excuse me, “Hudson North” train home to the suburbs one night and hands him this assignment that he’s not supposed to refuse. Mike just needs to find an unknown person getting off at a particular stop carrying a bag of unknown description and drop a GPS tracker on him or her. Why Joanna doesn’t just do this job herself remains a mystery. How Joanna can do some of the other things she proves herself able to do — such as follow up on her threat that she “can get to anyone, anywhere” on the train or off — and not find this person of interest remains a mystery. Why Mike doesn’t catch on that the totally obvious secret other villain is actually a bad guy remains a mystery. Mike misses a lot of clues to be the supposedly great cop we’re told he was.

The Commuter Liam Neeson
“What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired– oh, wait, we’re hitting that cell-signal dead zone…”

The script piles on a lot of reasons why Mike might theoretically be tempted to accept this job and the payment, if he weren’t a particularly nice person: his son needs college tuition; he and his wife have multiple mortgages on their house; he’s only a few years from retirement. Yet the script also fails to give us any hint that Mike is ever genuinely tempted, that he might not be anything other than an uncomplicated upstanding citizen. I kept waiting for the clever twist that was going to up the ante on everyone, show us that Mike was perhaps not quite what we were presuming, or that the villains were perhaps not quite the bad guys they seemed. But absolutely everything in The Commuter is exactly what you expect it is going to be. For a movie that thinks it’s all about tension, there’s precious little here, and no mystery beyond the unintentional ones of all the many plotholes (of which I have mentioned only a few).

The Commuter is stuck on its one track, which is taking its high concept far too literally. So it’s hardly surprising that the movie has no idea what to do with the enormous talents onscreen. Farmiga is disgustingly wasted, as are, in supporting roles, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, and particularly Elizabeth McGovern as Mike’s wife. Promising and intriguing up-and-comers are given almost nothing to do: Game of Thrones’s Dean-Charles Chapman as Mike’s son, and Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh and Star Trek: Discovery’s Shazad Latif as passengers on the train.

And you thought your commute was hell.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Mon, Jan 15, 2018 5:23pm

If we want to see Non-Stop again, we have DVDs and Netflix and so on.

Maybe watch it through a green filter to change things around a bit?

Laurie Mann
Laurie Mann
Tue, Jan 16, 2018 1:15am

The only trailer I hated more than The Commuter trailer was for Pitch Perfect 3. Saw both of these way too often the last few months. I really wish Liam Neeson would be in a movie I want to see, it’s been years since I paid to see one of his movies.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Laurie Mann
Wed, Jan 17, 2018 8:31pm

Have you seen A Monster Calls? It’s a different sort of role for Neeson than this one, but he’s perfect and wonderful in it.

Laurie Mann
Laurie Mann
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Feb 01, 2018 1:29pm

I finally saw A Monster Calls and really liked it. His voice was very good in it!

Tue, Jan 16, 2018 2:43pm

It’s for wonderful, dishy reviews like this that we read MA. So send her a few shekels and keep them coming. The donation of the same amount you’d pay for a small popcorn will really help.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Beowulf
Wed, Jan 17, 2018 8:31pm

The donation of the same amount you’d pay for a small popcorn will really help.

You’re not wrong.

Fri, Jan 19, 2018 5:04am

This movie was pure garbage. As I was watching I didn’t think it could it get much worse…and then they ripped off “Spartacus”. Wow.

Sat, Jan 20, 2018 1:15am

Its a popcorn movie. Had some great fight/tense scenes and really with the current bozo in office, who cares?

I didn’t think about that thing in office during the entire movie and that’s a great thing.

Bring on the next Liam movie. I’m game.

And Liam, put some weight back on. We love our hunky, beefy, slightly beyond middle age, Irish hero who vanquishes bad guys and saves America against all odds.

Do the next one on a luxury ocean liner. I’ll be standing in line with my ticket.

Its called entertainment. Unlike the clown in office – not entertaining.

Liam 2020!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Mehki_Girl
Sun, Jan 21, 2018 10:22pm

Had some great fight/tense scenes

It really didn’t, though.

Its called entertainment.

It should be entertaining, then.

Ivor O'Connor
Ivor O'Connor
Sun, Feb 18, 2018 2:53pm

Seen one Liam movie you’ve seen them all. Loving family. Bad guys threaten family. Man kills all the bad guys for his family.

Be kind of nice if the wife divorced him because he is psychotic and the kids leave him because the mom now has all the money. Make it realistic. But again it is another movie where violence solves everything and a wife and kids that take every paycheck to support is the American dream.

Wouldn’t it be better to see him fight a divorce court hearing. I’d like to see him violently taking out all the people trying to set him up. Or maybe violently telling some woman he ain’t going to marry her. Ever. Oh wait. That’s not PC.

Jonas Pell
Jonas Pell
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 3:59pm

If this cabal had that much power and resources, they could find target easier w/o Liam