]There comes a moment in Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter where all one’s problems with the film—all one’s disbelief towards its improbable premise, all one’s discomfort with its occasionally shoddy camerawork and editing—fall away. In this moment we realize our total investment in its story, in its characters, in its simple progression of set-pieces. In recent years Collet-Serra has quietly established himself as an unsung craftsman of tightly knit, expertly executed genre pictures that keep slipping under the mainstream radar despite reliable critical and commercial success, most notably 2016’s delightful surfer-vs-shark thriller The Shallows. But in The Commuter we see a new fine-tuning of his talents in one of the first true surprises of 2018.
While on his evening train commute home from New York City, mild-mannered insurance salesman and ex-cop Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) is approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who offers him $100,000 to take part in a mysterious challenge. Somewhere on the train is a passenger who doesn’t belong. On the passenger is a bag. Find the passenger, mark the bag, and do it all before they get off at the last stop. Oh, and if he doesn’t, his wife and daughter will die. She will be watching. Her employers will be watching. Behave and play the game or else.
With its simple, high-concept plot revolving around a meeting of literal strangers on a train, comparisons between The Commuter and Alfred Hitchcock seem inevitable. But a more accurate comparison would be with Agatha Christie, particularly her beloved (and recently adapted) novel Murder on the Orient Express. But whereas that book focuses on a detective solving a murder while trapped on a train, this film follows a detective trying to prevent a murder while trapped on a train. Having taken the same train to and from work for ten years, he knows all the regular passengers. Through some clever deductions involving the ticket stubs of riders he doesn’t recognize, he identifies a number of possible targets: an exhausted Latina nurse, a punk rock photography student, an arrogant broker, a black guitar player, a bald card shark, and a tattooed thug. Logically one of them must not be who they say they are. Before long McCauley figures out he’s been drafted into identifying the sole witness in a murder case involving a city planner so they can be assassinated by Joanna’s employers. This means two passengers are suspect: a witness and an assassin.
One of the joys of The Commuter is how it establishes the train itself as a consistent physical space. Each compartment has its specific passengers, its specific rail employees, its specific landmarks. One of the compartments has even been abandoned due to a broken A/C generator, giving Collet-Serra the perfect setting for tense confrontations between McCauley and the passengers as well as threatening phone calls from the seemingly omnipresent Joanna. The train becomes almost a character itself, one we get to know intimately as McCauley traverses throughout, outside, and even beneath it in his desperate hunt.
Neeson may be in his mid-sixties, but Collet-Serra manages to pull many demanding stunts from this grizzled genre veteran. In the last few years Neeson has become a constant fixture in rushed-out January-February action films. But while the other ones might have bigger effects budgets and fight scenes, none of them have felt so visceral and desperate as the ones captured here. One scene where Neeson has to role himself out from under a set of tracks as the train runs above him actually yanked an audible yelp from me. One fistfight with a passenger involving impromptu melee weapons would have ranked among the best fight scenes I’ve seen in some months if it hadn’t been shot largely in medium-close-up with shaky cams.
The third act eventually settles into traditional action beats involving an obnoxiously animated CGI train derailment (relax, it’s in the trailer), a tense hostage situation, and shocking betrayals involving people we thought were clean but were really on the take and vice versa. But the meat of the movie is in its first two acts where it’s just a man trying to get to the bottom of a desperate situation with nothing but his guts, brains, and instincts. It’s a film that presumes an active, engaged audience eager to use their brains, not turn them off. It might be a flashy piece of entertainment, but it’s not a stupid one.