With the end of the Christmas blockbuster season, interested movie-goers must turn to lesser-known projects in the hopes of discovering a thrill. Of course, the trade-off is that these projects are often worse than usual; less investment and time put into a movie tend to make for a subpar experience. While there is nothing glaringly wrong with “The Commuter” (2018), its interesting premise quickly goes off the rails, and those interested should be warned that the ending is nothing short of a train wreck.
Starring Liam Neeson as leading man Michael MacCauley, the movie follows the ex-detective insurance salesman as his ordinary commute turns into anything but. One day, MacCauley loses his job. As he rides the train home to break the news to his wife, worrying about paying for his son’s college tuition, McCauley is given a strange offer by a mysterious woman. For $100,000, all he has to do is locate someone who goes by the name of “Prynne” and stick a GPS locater on their bag before they get off at a stop named Cold Spring. Of course, this apparently simple task is nowhere near as easy as it seems, and before long MacCauley is fighting for his very life as the train barrels toward its destination.
One of the biggest disappointments with the film is that none of the characters have depth. Instead, they all occupy traditional character clichés, each fulfilling a rather boring role. Neeson’s character is the overworked but protective husband and father who will do anything for his family. His wife is sweet and caring; his son is smart yet filled with doubts about college; his ex-partner is distrustful and a bit of a renegade; and the woman on the train is classically attractive and almost seductive. There is nothing new in this repertoire. This is not to say that the actors themselves do a bad job, because their portrayal of these character archetypes is solid. However, good performances cannot make up for writing that is flawed from its foundation upward, and the movie suffers because viewers have a difficult time actually caring about any of the characters. None of them feel real enough to be worth investing emotional energy, and this lack of empathy for the characters leads to a boring 105 minutes.
The plot itself starts out on a decent note before ultimately crashing and burning — another major disappointment. On paper, the idea of being recruited by a mysterious individual to solve a task with limited time in a novel setting makes for a good movie, and the first half hour of the film is entertaining. But after the 30-minute mark, the plot collapses on itself, and it becomes more and more challenging to take it seriously. As multiple assassins and undercover agents enter the scene, everything begins to feel contrived. Just like the characters, the plot cannot escape feeling cliché and overdone, but what’s worse is that it is nowhere near believable. This might not have been a problem if the first half of the film hadn’t tried so hard to convince viewers it was telling a story about an everyday man with relatable problems who just happened to be thrown into unexpected circumstances. This juxtaposition between the ordinary and the extraordinary doesn’t completely fail at first, but combined with the movie’s confusing plot, it ultimately falls apart.
Of course, not everything about “The Commuter” is bad. The cinematography is very well done, with some breathtaking shots on the train that help emphasize MacCauley’s feelings of dread and hopelessness in the face of his mysterious task. The score also gets a pass; it is no masterpiece, but the music punctuates the action at just the right amount, further enhancing the film’s overall mood. However, beyond these two categories, the film is just too unremarkable to stand out in a positive way, and its flaws are too large to be covered up by decent shots and solid music.
At the end of the day, an action movie is an action movie, and “The Commuter” does enough right that it isn’t a total waste of time. The flip side is that it does too much wrong to really recommend seeing, and to be honest, Neeson’s previous films, such as “Taken” (2008) and “Non-Stop” (2014), do what “The Commuter” does, but better. If no other movie piques your interest, “The Commuter” is a fine choice for an afternoon out, but don’t hold your breath expecting a masterpiece of thriller and suspense.