For insurance agent Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson), every work day starts the same. At exactly 6:00 am, the bedside alarm rudely interrupts the silence and turns on the all news, all-the-time, radio station. McCauley drags himself out of bed, gets ready for work, makes sure his son is ready for school, then, come rain, sun, or snow, he gets in the car with his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and makes his way to the town’s local station.
From there, he boards the same train at the same time, sees the same faces, and makes his way into New York City. And it’s all put together in a flow of fade outs and some stylistically quick-shot edits, indicating the tedium of a never-ending daily routine for a suburbanite insurance agent commuting to NYC. “Everyday’s a grind,” says fellow passenger, Walt (Jonathan Ray Banks).
But if there’s one thing we learn about McCauley from director Jaume Collet-Serra’s action thriller The Commuter is that he wasn’t always an office worker. He used to be a cop, and by all accounts, a good one. But when savings and 401Ks went haywire in 2008, the man was forced to change direction. Instead, he sold insurance. And to date, he intends to keep selling right up until he’s sixty-five. With two mortgages behind him, no savings, and a son about to go to college, there’s no choice. He has to keep going. And then, with five more years left until full retirement, the worst that can happen happens. Due to cutbacks, McCauley is let go and escorted out of the building.
All of this occurs quickly, and if there’s one thing the film has successfully put into place is how easy it is to identify with McCauley. We may not all be insurance agents, and our mortgaged-to-the-hilt home may not be in upstate New York, but the concern of losing a career remains the ever-present dark cloud that hovers over the heads of many, particularly when there’s no savings on which to fall. Which is why it’s easy to understand how an honest man like McCauley would accept the bizarre challenge he’s given during the commute home that night.
As with Jan De Bont’s Speed, the forward motion of the train in Collet-Serra’s The Commuter automatically creates a sense of anticipation. When it first leaves the station, nothing particularly exciting has happened in the carriages, but things feel uncomfortable. For one thing, McCauley can’t find his phone, already creating a sense of isolation. Plus, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) seated opposite, suddenly invades McCauley’s privacy and presents an offer he can’t refuse. For reasons unknown, if McCauley can find a certain passenger on the train before the last stop and drops a GPS tracker in the passenger’s bag, he’ll be rewarded with $100,000. “Someone on this train doesn’t belong,” the woman tells him, then disembarks at the next stop. From there, the man finds himself embroiled in a deadly race against time, one that puts his and his family’s lives at risk. “In case you haven’t figured it out yet,” states a young kid, who is not necessarily involved but has clearly been told what to say to the commuter, “They’re watching you.”
So far, so good. In fact, the speed with which things are set up, you can’t help but be pulled in. The way in which Farmiga slyly piques McCauley, and our, curiosity about the task has an irresistible, seductive feel. And with a payoff a $100,000 at a time when the man needs it the most, how can he refuse? But as McCauley’s instincts as an ex-cop will soon tell him, there was never really a choice.
The Commuter is the kind of mystery thriller where, as things progress, common sense and any understanding of reality are eventually abandoned in favor of twisted and ultimately ludicrous logic. In order for events to unfold in the way the bad guys want things to happen, so much has to occur at precisely the right moment (and on an unpredictable speeding train) that in the real world these things would never have worked. And further, once you discover what is really going on, you start wondering why these unseen villains didn’t do the job themselves. Plus, it doesn’t help that McCauley has to unravel a complicated web that the screenwriters have weaved once the train stops and a stand-off ensues. That sense of speed and forward-motion grinds to a halt, and as a consequence, the film loses its momentum. But director Collet-Serra is so good at grabbing your attention during the first act that there comes a point where you willingly overlook every gaping plot hole or ludicrous outcome in favor of not spoiling the ride and wanting to get to journey’s end just to find out what happens.
Ultimately, The Commuter is hokey, sure, but the sight of Liam Neeson using a few special skills and knocking some bad guys about in a speeding carriage can’t help but be fun, and as long as you know this going in, so is the film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)