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.)
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.
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 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.