Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has carved out a niche as a purveyor of elegantly crafted schlock. In his latest effort,“The Commuter,” he teams up for the fourth time with Liam Neeson for a pop noir set aboard a train.
Michael (Neeson) is a middle-class family man on his way to work on the train he’s taken for 10 years into Manhattan to sell life insurance. On this day, Michael is 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 strange woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him. She puts forth a hypothetical question that turns out to be 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 going by “Prynne.”
Collet-Serra makes good use of the limitations, opportunities and unique situations of this particular train, carrying friends, strangers and enemies alike. His rich depiction of train life is a sensory plunge into the hustling chaos that is exacting in its precision. He and cinematographer Paul Cameron use visceral hand-held camerawork alongside dizzyingly elaborate zooms between punched passenger tickets. The bold style breathes life into the generic script, which is a serviceable mystery with some tepid social commentary about big banks and bad systems stomping on the little guy.
Unfortunately, as the mystery deepens, Neeson’s goals evolve. He’s not content with just finishing his task; he wants to finish the group that put him in this mess. It’s at this point when the story derails.
The twisty tale keeps pointing toward a conspiracy, but it never explains what the conspiracy is, so when anyone is revealed to have been a part of the conspiracy, it falls flat. All of the elements are there for a stylish 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. 1:44. Fayette, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.