The Commuter

Liam Neeson between two train carriages

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

Little Children

Kate Winslet in Little Children

A tale of American white-picket suburbia, disturbia perhaps, from director Todd Field, opening out a touch from In the Bedroom, whose focus was all there in the title. Our heroine, a Madame Bovary figure called Sarah (Kate Winslet), scandalises the harpies at the school gate by striking up a relationship with the only hot male on the school run (Patrick Wilson). Back home Sarah’s husband (Gregg Edelman) is big on internet porn, something Sarah doesn’t know till she catches him masturbating with a pair of panties on his face. But he’s small on most other things and so we sympathise with Sarah as she seeks solace in the arms of the hunky Brad. Brad, meanwhile, is also seeking comfort, away from judgment, because he’s screwed up his bar exams and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is more successful than he is, though no less attractive. It’s a bitch eat dog sort of world.

Pretty, orderly lifestyles with discontent roiling underneath is a standard trope of the high-minded American film, whether it’s Robert Altman (Short Cuts), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Todd Solondz (Happiness). It’s the territory Field is working in too, possibly too self-consciously. Emblematic of the bad stuff is a paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) newly released to the world, against whom the suburbanites are figuratively pulling the wagons into a circle and preparing to let loose all they’ve got, in a passive-aggressive don’t-mess-my-decor kind of way. In fact, as Field repeatedly shows us in long, leisurely panoramas taken in by the cool camera of Antonio Calvache, defence is the big pre-occupation, whether it’s against unsavoury predators or any loss in status, real or implied, with children a pivot – the proof of the suburban family’s moral perfection being its reproduction intact.

Field is having a visual stab at the Great American Novel with this adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s story – who in Election turned over a stone in a high school to also find wriggly things lurking – and there’s always the suspicion that maybe the entire thing should have stayed as a novel, undeniably well done though Little Children is.

Winslet offers another of her versions of the reined-in neurotic she always seems to be at awards ceremonies and Patrick Wilson, never one to be accused of having range, gets away with it as the largely symbolic hunkaspunk. Meanwhile, symptomatic of what’s not working is Jennifer Connelly’s barely-there bleeding-heart documentarian and the regular reappearance of a flat, low, menacing voiceover, maybe half a nod to Desperate Housewives, of which this is some sort of distant relative, half a nod to the fact that Field is having trouble getting his story out any other way.

As for the wonderfully unsavoury Jackie Earle Haley as the paedophile, he’s caviar rather than the main course, though the scene where he arrives at the swimming pool and slowly lowers himself into the shallow end with the children, that on its own makes the film worth stopping by for.

Little Children – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006

Hard Candy

Ellen Page updates the Red Riding Hood look in Hard Candy

Thonggrrrl14 , aka Hayley, agrees to meet Lensman319, aka Jeff, at a local coffee shop. They head back to his pad, the 14-year-old and the mature photographer, where Hayley drugs Jeff, ties him up and prepares to wreak some overdue revenge on behalf of all the other poor girls who have ever been hoodwinked and then abused by someone who should know better. First threatening to castrate him following procedures she learnt online – see how the internet gives but also takes? – she then spends a good amount of time messing with his head, in scenes which should be punctuated with reminders to breathe. Which way is this thriller going to play out? It’s a two-hander with remarkable 17-year-old Ellen Page as Hayley. Patrick Wilson is similarly impressive as the perp – though his agent probably isn’t pushing the film to the top of Wilson’s resumé. Hard Candy must have cost the price of a few takeaway sandwiches but is an assured switch for director David Slade from pop promos for Stone Temple Pilots and Aphex Twin into grown-up (if that’s not an inappropriate term here) drama. The film itself has an interesting arc. As already suggested, it starts out as a movie about a paedophile, then switches focus from him to her, becoming a revenge movie in the process, before finally switching again, becoming something of a plea for more intervention by the authorities – how come this sort of shit is going on – sort of thing. But also, en route to its grisly finale, the film does something odd – it starts to make us feel sorry for the poor, confused, hormonally driven loser guy. That, surely wasn’t the intention.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Hard Candy – at Amazon