Decided to welcome the old MoviePass into 2018 yesterday and saw The Commuter with Liam Neeson. I would like to say that there aren’t going to be any spoilers in this review. And really, there aren’t. Except you know the story already because it’s a liamneeson movie. It’s Taken on a train. You see, there are many genres of movie… there’s romance, drama, horror, comedy, suspense, thriller, film noir, western, science fiction, and one of our newest emerging genres, liamneeson. I used to think that Liam Neeson was an action movie star. He’s not… he’s a liamneeson movie star. The genres are similar, in the same way horror, suspense and thriller are the similar. But they’re not the same. The liamneeson film is perhaps descended from the action film… but also from the thriller, the suspense, and perhaps even a bit from the comedy.
The basic formula of the liamneeson film is for an older gentleman, with a particular set of skills, who loves his family but perhaps has some problems relating to them because he’s kind of a stoic, is placed into an untenable situation by a miscellaneous bad guy where the family is threatened and he must use that particular set of skills to defeat the bad guy before an arbitrarily defined deadline when all will be lost. In doing so, the protagonist will run afoul of law enforcement because he’s not sure which members of it are corrupt and which ones he can trust. However, he has a strong moral code and can ultimately rely on his skills to get the job done. Oh, and he kills a lot of people. Liam Neeson is our finest liamneeson film star.
And this is that movie.
This is exactly that movie.
If you’ve never seen a liamneeson film before, I’d say this is a pretty good introduction to the genre. It’s by no means the best liamneeson film ever; that would be Taken. But this is very much Taken on a train. And it does a pretty good job of being Taken on a train too. I’d say it’s superior to his role in Non-Stop, aka Taken on a plane. And if you’re a fan of the liamneeson genre, well… you’re going to get that here. He’s an older gentleman, he has a particular set of skills. there are crooked cops, a family in danger, people getting killed. All the elements are there.
It certainly doesn’t have the charm of the first Taken. Of course, neither did the actual sequels. What really works for this is that they’ve tried to change it up a bit. Not just by adding the train (this was the problem with Non-stop). They tried to make him a different character so as to give the audience a reason to care about him in a different way than we have in other liamneeson movies. I mean, he’s not a TOTALLY different character. He’s still a stoic, older gentleman who has problems relating to his family. He still has a particular set of skills. But they sort of downplayed all of that. He’s less stoic. His failure to relate is less exaggerated, more like any other man dealing with the stresses of work, marriage, and parenting. His job is more normal. Rather than a black ops secret agent, he’s an insurance salesman.
The film really wants you to buy into his normalcy. And this is accomplished right away, by one of the most brilliant opening directorial choices I’ve seen in a film in recent memory. (Yes really!) A montage of him waking up in the morning, getting dressed, and speaking to his wife and son as he gets ready to catch his commuter train on the way to work. The scenes quickly cut to dozens of variations on the same routine. The hair and clothing change. The seasons and weather change. Sometimes the conversations are happy and sometimes sad. But the progression through the routine is constant. It’s unclear whether we’re seeing a montage of months or years. The monotony is strangely engaging, especially with the visuals that present it. The film makes you want to care about Neeson. You’re immediately invested in his life… as boring as it may be.
After the first ten minutes I felt like I might have been wrong about the movie. Maybe there was more to this than Taken on a train after all.
The problem is after that, the film remembers that it’s a liamneeson movie and forgets that it was trying to do something else. We suddenly find out that he’s not just an insurance salesman. He’s been doing it for a decade, but he’s a former cop. Furthermore the convoluted bad guy plot specifically revolves around the fact that Neeson’s cop skills, as well as his personality and the fact that he rides that specific train every day make him uniquely necessary for the plot. They also make him uniquely qualified to stop it.
And that kind of bugged me.
It’s not that I didn’t like the movie. I kind of did. It’s just that I felt like the opening 10-15 min were squandered. They could generate a much better movie. That said, they do connect the viewer to the character far more than would occur in your typical liamneeson film. There’s a reason to care about him. There’s a reason to see him not only as a stoic older gentleman killer, but a hero for the middle class. He represents both the frustration with middle-class monotony, inadequacy and unappreciation by management and the moral authority and dedication to hardwork that the middle class claims as its merits. And there was just enough to let me latch onto his life and wonder what would make this incarnation of the Neeson character different from the others. The problem is… he wasn’t. Once the plot the plot kicks in and the story becomes about him fighting the bad guys in the train, he is in effect identical to any other liamneeson protagonist. The set-up of his desk job or monotonous commute no longer seem to really matter.
Is the film worth watching? Sure. It always fun to see Neeson kick some ass utilizing a particular set of skills. There’s a reason he is our finest liamneeson actor. But there’s nothing special about this to make it something you HAVE to see. Not special… just particular.
★★½☆☆+? (2.5 out of 5 stars… plus a particular set of skills)