The silliest of the low-rent, high-impact thrillers that Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have made together (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” and “Run All Night” being the previous three), “The Commuter” may not match the potent charge of their earlier collaborations, but this amusingly ridiculous ride is still a few cuts above the kind of swill you’d expect to arrive in theaters on the second weekend of January.
This may be a forgettable movie about the forgotten man — a blue-collar morality play disguised as a very contrived hostage crisis — but at least it’s shlock with something on its mind. It’s the kind of action vehicle that Barton Fink might have written if he arrived in Hollywood during the mid-’90s.
Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an ex-cop (what else?) who’s settled into his second act as the model suburbanite. Now a life insurance salesman with a wife (Elizabeth McGovern), a son (Dean-Charles Chapman), and a monthly Metro-North pass that he uses to ride between Tarrytown and Grand Central five days a week, Michael is defined by the monotony of his middle-class existence. Collet-Serra has always been able to find fresh ways to serve up stale tropes, and that gift is on full display in “The Commuter.”
It’s all there in the hyper-efficient opening credits sequence, which illustrates the tedium of the rank-and-file grind by cycling through a year’s worth of Michael’s morning routine. Wake up. Turn on the radio. Wince. Eat breakfast with the kid. Kiss the wife goodbye at the station. Share a cute inside joke that reminds you what you’re working for and why you’ve gotta be on the 6:25pm train home. It’s a thankless lot, and it doesn’t offer much margin for error, but that’s what you get for living inside the lines. Michael’s dad dropped dead of a heart attack at 43, so our aging hero is already on borrowed time.
And then — in what will mark the start of a very long summer day — Michael is unceremoniously fired for no good reason just a few years short of retirement.
But fate sometimes has a funny way of rewarding decent people who get screwed out of what they deserve, and so it happens that Michael sits across from a woman he’s never seen before (Vera Farmiga) on the way home, a strange occurrence on a commuter train that’s usually packed with the same faces. She strikes up a nervous conversation (“It’s my first time on a commuter train” is the kind of hilariously tone-deaf dialogue that a movie like this uses to let you in on the joke), before offering Michael an unexpected lifeline: If he can find and identify a certain someone on the train — someone he’s never seen on Metro-North before — she’ll give him $100,000. It’s tax-free, but it’s probably best for him not to think too hard about what might happen to the person he roots out; America doesn’t offer its citizens any consolation prizes for caring about the victims of their greed.
“What kind of person are you?” the woman asks Michael before leaving him with the biggest decision of his life. How much would it take for you to throw a complete stranger under the tracks?
There’s something vaguely sinister about the fact that $100,000 isn’t enough money to change Michael’s life, but still more than enough to save it. There’s also something sinister about the fact that Farmiga’s character couldn’t possibly be more evil if she had blood-red devil horns growing out of her forehead. Alas, that’s ultimately a moot point, as the film makes the fatal mistake of showing its hand too soon, ensnaring Michael in a vast conspiracy before he’s granted a real chance to make an ethical decision.
By the time he’s covered in flop-sweat and racing between the train cars, sizing up every unfamiliar face in a clumsy game of whodunnit, Michael already knows that the bad guys have abducted his wife. As diverting as it can be to watch Neeson dopily interrogate an eclectic crew of supporting characters (including a Columbia undergrad played by “Lady Macbeth” breakout Florence Pugh), placing a gun to his head almost entirely liberates the protagonist from any sort of moral dilemma. Michael even calls the police (Sam Neill and Patrick Wilson) to let them know what he’s up to; he’s doing the right thing every step of the way.
“The Commuter” forfeits a good movie about why an everyman might get ensnared in some lite Hitchcockian mishegoss for a mediocre one about how he might weasel his way out of it. Collet-Serra does his damnedest to keep things interesting, zooming between train cars on the wings of shoddy CG and slowly raising the stakes until the situation has become a real emergency, but the mystery of who Michael is looking for (or why Farmiga’s people are looking for them) is never remotely as compelling as the mystery of why the hell the film needed to pretend that Metro-North trains run on subway tracks on their way out of Manhattan.
It’s seldom an unforgivable sin for a story to print the legend when the truth gets in its way, but this is a goof so egregious that it will take most New Yorkers right out of the movie — it’s like seeing a bus drive through the Hudson River. Then again, in a world where cheaters are rewarded, decent citizens are thrown under the bus, and a 65-year-old man is the most reliably convincing action star we’ve got left, maybe we’re all on the wrong track.
“The Commuter” opens in theaters on January 12.