The Commuter

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Liam Neeson. A Very Particular Set of Skills. They’re back in The Commuter, in which everyone’s favourite geri-actioner gets physical… this time on a train.

This is the fourth collaboration between Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, after Unknown (skills in Berlin), Non-Stop (Skills on a plane), Run All Night (Skills in New York) and now Skills on the way home from work.

If it seems like there have been a lot more of these films than that, you’re probably also adding Taken (three of them) and Walk Among the Tombstones to the tally. They were directed by different people but also featured a gravelly and largely unsmiling Neeson being forced into a corner and then coming out fighting. 2019’s Cold Pursuit wasn’t far from a Skills movie either, even if the Skills did get in the way of successfully translating an excellent Nordic black comedy into the English language. The original even had a better English-language title – In Order of Disappearance.

As in the Taken trilogy, The Commuter’s plot pivots on a threat to the loved ones of committed family man Michael McCauley (Neeson), who has been lured by the offer of easy money from a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) on the train because he’s just been fired, after having clawed his way back from the abyss of the 2008 financial collapse. No need to worry about all that detail, by the way, though the script does insist on throwing in a couple of “fuck the banks” references to differentiate The Commuter from Non-Stop, which it resembles.

Michael stands to gain $100K if he can find the someone the mystery woman is looking for… that’s it. The sting in the tail being that once he accepts the job and takes the upfront payment of $25K he’s got to go all the way or his wife and son will be killed.

Michael finds the money
Michael takes the bait

The rest of the film is Liam Neeson running up and down the train, challenging people and getting punched in the face or threatened with gun.

Clearly open to the Gibson/Glover charge of being too old for all this shit, Neeson is playing a 60-year-old (he’s 66 at this point, though careful grooming and a Hollywood lifestyle easily knock ten years off) but there’s a reason why a string of these films starring Neeson have been made – he’s a brilliant actor and a plausible physical presence, and he’s lucky enough to be yoked to a director who really understands how to do action. Even so, time marches on, and though the acting chops are still there, Neeson and Collet-Serra bow to the inevitable this time out – in The Commuter when Michael gets punched, it really looks like it hurts.

Hitchcock-era Cary Grant is the template for all these films – the innocent urbane gent pushed into ever more paranoid corners by forces (usually) unseen.

And as with Cary Grant, Liam Neeson creates his own reality – Neesonworld. In Neesonworld, Michael gets rape-sprayed in the face at one point by a young woman he’s just chased up the train and in his next breath (amazingly he can still take one) he’s offering her dating advice. In Neesonworld, even though this ordinary commuter leaves his carriage only to re-enter it minutes later all beaten up and bleeding, no one really comments or ever asks him, “Just WTF is going on?”

Vera Farmiga I’ve mentioned. Sam Neill, Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth McGovern also turn up – most of them for not much longer than their names shimmer in the opening and closing credits – to add a bit of ballast to the dénouement, which also doesn’t matter one iota but concerns skulduggery in high places.

It looks like everyone is still having a lot of fun making these – Collet-Serra throws in the bonus of a runaway-train finale just in case we aren’t having as much fun watching, and the screenwriters throw in an eye-roll reference to Spartacus (another innocent man) – but this run of films is clearly on its last knockings. Neeson even graciously admits to a little stiffness at the end – nothing a Badedas bath wouldn’t fix – having survived ordeals that would have killed ten normal men. He even smiles.

The Commuter – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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