By Jack Dignan
Good marketing for a film is the key to success. If you play your cards right, no matter how bad the film ends up being, you’ll get butts in seats. Suicide Squad, one of the most universally hated films in recent memory, had a beyond effective marketing campaign that resulted in US$746,846,894 worldwide… as well as a lawsuit for false advertising. But hey, money talks. If you go and look at almost every poster for any movie, you’ll notice an effectively catchy tagline. Even the upcoming Fifty Shades Freed has a great tagline of “Don’t Miss The Climax.” With The Commuter, however, the tagline simply reads “Lives Are On The Line.”
Now, I get what they’re going for. This is a Liam Neeson-led action thriller set entirely on a train, so they’ve twisted the classic saying into a train pun of sorts, but it comes across as nothing more than lazy poster design. Fifty Shades Freed gives me more faith just based on its poster than The Commuter did with its. Thankfully, however, the infuriating lack of creativity ends there, for director Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson is just as much fun as you could possibly hope for, even if it is more of the same.
Neeson plays a businessman named Michael who, through unexpected layoffs at work, loses his job right when he needed it most. Yet to tell his wife, he takes the commuter train home like he would on any normal day, planning his way of breaking the news, but today, this seemingly normal train ride turns into a deadly conspiracy when the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) pulls him into a game of life and death, forcing Michael to seek out a passenger on the train who doesn’t belong in exchange for a wholesome sum of money. While reluctant at first, Michael accepts her offer, but the further he ventures down the rabbit hole, the more serious the consequences are, and the more dangerous this train ride becomes.
It’s a simplistic, if not slightly idiotic thriller that’s the perfect bit of escapism for a rainy afternoon. You’re not going to leave The Commuter drenched in sweat from all the tension, nor in love with the beauty and passion put into the craftsmanship, but as a mindless fluff piece that sees Liam Neeson beating a dude with a guitar, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had. This is the perfect gateway to two hours of blissful thinking, where you can kick your feet up, sit back and relax as you’re taken on a ridiculous and rambunctious adventure you barely need to give a second thought.
The initial set-up is fairly choppy, attempting to give an insight into Michael’s life, most notably through a seemingly dire situation at home, and while it does create empathy towards his situation, a lot of the initial drama and tension proves utterly pointless in the grand scheme of things. You leave the opening with a feeling of “maybe everything at home isn’t okay for these characters,” but their problems are ineffective and useless once Michael finds himself aboard the commuter train. It’s unnecessary characterization depicted in a choppy, fast-cutting way.
Characterization is a must. Movies need it. This one has it. But you don’t go into films like The Commuter looking for deep social commentaries. It’s the mindless fun that audiences want here, so once this film gets into it, it really delivers. The first half is taut, thrilling and unpredictable, moving graciously through its story without allowing time for breaks. Given the small crowd, you really get a grip on who’s who, and I found myself working alongside Neeson’s character, trying to figure out who it is exactly that we’re after. Neeson plays himself, but he plays him effortlessly, matched by a perfectly sinister and alluding performance from Vera Farmiga.
When we do make it into the second half, however, things take a turn. The plot, particularly in the third act, goes over-board, loosing some of its excitement and replacing it with big action set pieces that dwell a little too far in the realm of ridiculousness. The Commuter’s final moments unravel everything, but it’s all too unbelievable and extreme to work nearly as effectively as what came before it. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have seen a certain spoiler-y aspect from the third act, and unfortunately, the CGI doesn’t improve in the finished film. It’s as bad on the big screen as it was on your smart phone.
I went into The Commuter with reasonably low expectations, and not just because of how frustratingly bad that film’s tagline is (which, thankfully, doesn’t get said in the actual movie like so many other taglines do), but I came out with a feeling of delight. The Commuter is mostly forgettable, strangely edited and unapologetically over the top, but at the end of the day, it’s fun and I enjoyed myself, and that’s all you really need with films like this.
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