Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has carved out a nice niche for himself as a purveyor of elegantly crafted schlock. Although he started in horror, Collet-Serra has found a groove with highly efficient, extremely effective thrillers. In “The Commuter,” he teams up for the fourth time with his muse, Liam Neeson, for a pop noir set aboard a commuter train.
Michael (Neeson) is a middle-class family man, his happy suburban life detailed in a brilliant opening montage of mornings at home and on the train he takes into Manhattan to sell life insurance. One day, Michael is unceremoniously fired five years from retirement, no severance, with his mortgage due and his kid departing for a pricey private college.
He’s two beers deep on the train when a woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him with a hypothetical question that turns out to be all too real. Would you find and do something to another passenger on this train for $100,000? Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but as soon as Michael gets a whiff of the cash, he’s already in too deep with a shadowy murderous mob. He’s obligated to search for a passenger called Prynne.
Collet-Serra’s rich depiction of train life is a sensory plunge into hustling chaos. He and cinematographer Paul Cameron utilize visceral hand-held camerawork alongside dizzyingly elaborate zooms between punched passenger tickets. The bold style breathes life into the script, which is a serviceable mystery with some tepid social commentary about big banks and bad systems stomping on the little guy.
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At this point in his career, Neeson is a man with a very specific set of skills. Here he’s an ex-cop trained to observe tics of human behavior and assess threats. As the mystery deepens, his goals evolve, not just to finish his task, but to finish the entire group that put him in this sorry mess. It’s at this point that the story, well, derails.
The twisty tale keeps pointing toward a conspiracy behind the motive for Michael’s increasingly harrowing task, but it never explains what the conspiracy is, so when anyone is revealed to have been a part of said conspiracy, it falls flat.
The elements are there for stylish and suspenseful flick, but the suspense seems to have been forgotten. Ultimately, “The Commuter” gets the job done, but it won’t get hearts racing.
Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.