Although I’m usually a total sucker for a really great thriller set entirely in one location – classic one-location wonders like Rear Window, Lifeboat, and Repulsion are probably my favorites – when that location is moving, things usually get exponentially more exciting. Especially if the thing that is moving is a train. And when you’ve got one or more stone-cold killers set lose on that train – as in the rip-roaring remake of Murder on the Orient Express – well, sign me up till the end of the line, baby!
Unfortunately, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter is proof positive that not all action movies set on trains are good, or even watchable, even if they star a total badass like Liam Neeson (Taken, Daddy’s Home 2). Yep, Collet-Serra made a lousy Liam Neeson movie, which, considering Neeson’s propensity for elevating even the lamest action movie premise to popcorn movie perfection, is really saying something. Even more shocking is the fact that Collet-Serra’s previous films were the hugely entertaining Non-Stop (which also starred Neeson) and 2016’s pitch-perfect Blake Lively vs. man-eating shark epic, The Shallows, which just might be one of the coolest one-location wonders of all time. So, what happened?
Although I generally shy away from blaming the writers, the fact that Commuter’s nonsensical rat trap of a screenplay was penned by three writers – Non-Stop’s Ryan Engle and newcomers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi – says everything you need to know. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoiled this broth from the get-go and Collet-Serra’s odd casting choices and flair for the artsy only made things worse.
That said, there are exactly two reasons to see Commuter. One is an extended fight scene between a dude with an axe and a dude with a guitar (yes, a guitar!) and the other is a train derailment sequence that gives the classic train crash in The Fugitive a serious run for its money. But since those sequences combined only take up maybe ten minutes or so of screen time, that leaves a whole lot of time to kill, which, come to think of it, is not unlike a real commute.
Starring Neeson as a retired cop/recently-fired insurance salesman (again, don’t ask) named Michael MacCauley, Commuter opens with MacCauley encountering a mysterious woman on his train ride home named Joanna, played by Bates Motel’s always entertaining Vera Farmiga. Offering MacCauley $100,000 if he helps ferret out the one passenger on the train who “doesn’t belong” before the last stop on the line, Joanna slips off the train and disappears into the crowd. Torn about what to do or not do and who to even trust, MacCauley quickly realizes that his only way out is by going along with Joanna’s murderous plan or die trying not to.
Muddled and confusing with a twist that any film school dropout could spot a mile away, Commuter is far too satisfied with itself to realize how totally boring it really is. And though it’s always nice to see co-stars Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey, The House of Mirth), Patrick Wilson (The Founder, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park, Thor: Ragnarok) in anything, in this case, I would have been much happier if they’d missed this train entirely and taken a cab instead.
Now playing on select JetBlue, El Al Israel Airlines, EVA Air, Hawaiian Airlines, Air Transat, and American Airlines flights worldwide, The Commuter is also available via streaming at Amazon Video, Google Play, and iTunes.