Last year, when Liam Neeson revealed that he’d stop making action movies after his latest, the world reacted with the kind of shock and sadness reserved for the deaths of particularly beloved young actors.
It’d only been roughly 10 years since the first Taken established that the actor was both a boffo box office draw and, more importantly, incredibly compelling as a tough guy in the Lee Marvin/Charles Bronson mold, and it felt like it had just started yesterday. How could he stop?
True, the Irish actor might be pushing 66 and probably has other more-fulfilling projects to work on — you know, ones that aren’t the kind of B-grade action cinema that keeps audiences entertained outside of the peak moviegoing seasons — but it always felt like his on-screen family would get kidnapped for another decade at the very least before he decided to hang up the handgun for good. Still, we have one final film to celebrate the improbable rise of Liam Neesons, action star, and that’s the Jaume Collet-Serra joint, The Commuter, which is about as good as January action movies get, even if it can’t exactly match Neeson’s own highs within the peculiar genre that’s coalesced around him.
Neeson plays Michael McCauley, a former NYPD officer turned insurance salesman, who’s got a lot on his plate. His son’s going off to college, and he and his wife (a barely-present Elizabeth McGovern) have no idea how they’ll pay for it, given that they’re still living paycheck-to-paycheck after the financial crisis a decade ago. He gets a little comfort in his routine and his commute to work in the city, where he’s established relationships with a number of passengers — an old Yankees fan (Jonathan Banks) and a train conductor, amongst others — and doesn’t really deviate from it. That stands, until he gets fired from his job for some specious reasons some five years away from his retirement (this is an action movie that acknowledges the age of its star, which is nice), and is devastated.
He meets his ex-partner (Patrick Wilson) at a bar and drowns his sorrows, nearly missing his train. When he boards and finally finds a seat, he’s approached by a stranger named Joanna (a creepy Vera Farmiga) who claims to be a behavioral psychologist, and asks him to entertain a hypothetical scenario: There’s someone on the train who doesn’t belong, and if he were to be paid some $100,000 to find that person with only a handful of vague clues, could he find that person?
Well, turns out it wasn’t a hypothetical at all, and McCauley finds the first installment of his payment — $25,000 — hidden in an air vent in one of the commuter train’s bathrooms. The former cop’s supposed to plant a GPS tracker on the person’s bag before they get off the train, and then he’ll get the rest of the money. Being a decent dude, he decides to turn down the woman’s offer, at which point a young woman (Letitia Wright) shows up at the next stop and hands him his wife’s wedding ring. They’ve got his family, and things are only going to get darker from here.
Forced to comply, he begins to work, while also trying to contact his ex-partner to call for help. He’s only given the stop for where they’ll be getting off, and begins to narrow down the dramatis personae from there — a stockbroker (Shazad Latif), a nurse (Clara Lago), a photography student (Florence Pugh), a tattooed dude (Roland Moller) and others — and plots how he’ll figure out who they are. Along the way, certain details will be revealed that may cast the motivations for Joanna’s interest in this person in a darker light, and McCauley will be forced to choose between saving the life of an innocent person or the lives of his family all in the course of a single train ride.
Collet-Serra, fresh off probably the biggest hit of his career with the Blake Lively/Shark romance The Shallows is probably the one filmmaker of the Late Neeson era to know how to shoot action involving the aging Irishman, and indeed, there’s one particularly epic sequence involving an assassin, a gun and a guitar that’s bound for the record books. It’s all presented in one unbroken take, though you can see some of the seams after, say, someone’s head is put through a window, and Collet-Serra isn’t trying to have his star scale fences or throw crazy kicks, instead he opts for Neeson just to box like a retired cop would. Likewise, there are some small moments of beauty that he gets across as well, such as an imaginative and interesting prologue that shows Neeson and his family in their morning routines over the course of a year, and it’s a clever way to introduce family dynamics and deliver quick and solid exposition about the circumstances of Neeson’s life.
There’s a fun ensemble, though it’s not as great as, say, Non-Stop, but you could do worse than having a psuedo-Conjuring reunion between Wilson and Farmiga in your B-action movie and a practical rolodex of interesting English actors. Still, it’s Neeson who makes things work as well as they do. The star’s unimpeachable goodness has never been more of an asset than it is here, as it allows for his director to get past the potentially icky moral questions that could be asked of Neeson (did his hesitation or his fuck-ups get anybody killed?) or any complications involving our protagonist’s mental state (could he just be having a nervous breakdown?), and instead allows him to focus on fun details such as the class differences between those on the train — truly, never has the one allowed usage of “fuck” in a PG-13 movie been more politically righteous — and making the puzzle as twisty-and-turny as possible. That’s not always a good thing: The climactic derailment as seen in the previews actually comes a good half-hour before the end of the film, and kind of forces the movie to a weird halt right when it should be getting crazier and crazier, but there’s enough here to make it work.
Truly, The Commuter only suffers in comparison to another Farmiga picture that was released this past decade, the Duncan Jones joint Source Code, and it’s a rollicking good time for what it’s worth. It’s got some truly excellent action and a shockingly compelling sub-Hitchcockian plot, enhanced by Neeson’s steady performance and some occasional flashes of brilliance from his director.
If I had to rank it in comparison to all of the Late Neeson action films, it’d probably be above Unknown and the Taken films but well below the true heights of this stage in his career, those films being Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and Scott Frank’s astonishingly fun A Walk Amongst the Tombstones (and it will forever be a goddamn travesty that we don’t have him starring in a Lawrence Block adaptation each and every October). Still, it’s a more than worthy entry into the Neeson canon, and is far and away the best film of 2018 so far, er, at least until next weekend. Can you blame us for wanting to have a quote on the poster for this one?
Long live Liam Neeson, action star.