The Neesploitation genre shifts from arthritic debilitation (Run All Night) to senile incontinence with The Commuter — an action film with a hook so dumb that Liam Neeson’s recitation of it to another character creates the following exchange:
Superfluous Secondary Dude: “Not much to go on.”
Generically Irish Liam Neeson Character: “Tell me about it.”
Michael MacCauley, that’s it. Drinks at a place called Paddy O’Rourke’s or something. Not just Irish. Super Irish. He drinks beside a pal played by a well-known character actor whose presence lets you know that 1) he must have needed to pay for something and 2) he will be integral to what befalls Michael.
Michael is an ex-cop turned life insurance salesman who loses his job on the verge of sending his son — who is smart because he reads lots of novels — off to college. We see Michael lose the job in a scene that suggests Neeson’s growling version of Up in the Air. He lost his pension, too, in 2008, prompting him to shout, howlingly verbatim, the following at a Goldman Sachs stockbroker: “Hey, Goldman Sachs! On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!”
Unclear, though, is why Michael is no longer a police officer. Perhaps that explanation is swallowed up amid the first-act excitement of seeing Michael check ticket punches, scan timetables, sit down, lean forward and / or investigate suspiciously clean train bathrooms.
Ah, yes! The train, through which a CGI camera zooms from front to back — illustrating that this train, like most others, is a long tube. Michael has taken the same line for 10 years. On it, people strike up random poker games with strangers. Is that not what happens on your commuter train?
It’s here that a conspiratorial cabal eager to off a witness to one of its crimes before he / she talks to the feds choose to engage Michael in some sort of screenwriters’ psychology thesis rather than just killing the person. If Michael will only put a tracker on said witness — one of his fellow travelers —he will be $100,000 richer and guilt-free from having done no physical harm himself, right? If you’re wondering why the FBI would ask a witness to meet them at a suburban train station rather than take said witness into protective custody, well, Lionsgate probably isn’t going to make your Liam Neeson movie so THERE!
Now this is the point where The Commuter turns into a thing where Neeson beats a bad guy senseless with a guitar, stabs him with a tuning knob and then hurls his dumb ass onto the tracks, all edited to feel like a single take before Neeson clings to the guitar neck like a fading rock star. It’s the sole moment of distinction in this fourth pairing of Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, who peaked with Non-Stop and repeat it here to vastly diminishing returns, right down to the authorities believing Michael is the terrorist mastermind.
That guitar attack is also the moment where you feel, yet again, that Neeson is just gaslighting us with these oft-quoted stories of him really being too old for this shit this time. What the hell else is he going to do? Observe how casually nonchalant everyone on the train is when he pulls a gun. They’re no dummies. They probably fell asleep during Unknown and Run All Night on TNT, too.
Like Adam Sandler’s character in Funny People became to Sandler in real life, Neeson is just making the movies about which he used to joke. At this point, I fully expect to see Missile Tow — the fake film for which he contributed a voice cameo in Daddy’s Home 2 — as a real thing by 2020. That said, it couldn’t be worse than Daddy’s Home 2.
As for The Commuter, it just gets you thinking about how many mysteries set on a train are preferable. The answer? All of them, even Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express; burnishing that by comparison is really quite something. Late in The Commuter, Neeson stands next to a headline that reads “Make the Most of Your Weekends This Fall.” Heed its advice: Watch one of those movies then instead of this garbage when it premieres on Starz or whatever.