When an ex-cop-turned-insurance salesman Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) encounters a mysterious stranger named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) on a train, he is offered a US$100,000 to track down a hidden passenger before the last stop in Cold Spring.
With the exception of the gritty crime thriller in Run All Night (2015), Jaume Collet-Serra’s first two collaborations with Liam Neeson in Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014) are heavily rooted in the Hitchcockian territory. For their fourth collaboration in The Commuter, the Barcelona-born director has once again drawn inspiration from the late master of suspense. And this time, the latest movie is heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic train-set thrillers such as The Lady Vanishes (1938) and particularly, Strangers on a Train (1951). In fact, you could even say The Commuter is basically a train version of Non-Stop. Even the plot shares most of the DNA of that aforementioned movie. Instead of Non-Stop‘s “guess-the-mysterious-sender” whodunit on the plane, it’s more like “guess-the-hidden-passenger” premise that Liam Neeson’s character needs to track down on the train. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with the identical-but-different-scenario storyline as long as the movie manages to engage us in a compelling storyline.
In The Commuter, Collet-Serra and his trio of screenwriters (Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Non-Stop scribe Ryan Eagle) open the movie promisingly with a fast-forward montage of Michael’s daily routine from his morning preparations to commuting the same train to his workplace. Unlike the more pacey Non-Stop, the movie doesn’t jump fast into a race-against-the-clock scenario on the train. It takes time to establish Michael’s perspective albeit in an efficient manner, thanks to Liam Neeson’s riveting performance as always. Then, it gets interesting from there. The mysterious appearance of Vera Farmiga as Joanna sets the Hitchcockian tone in motion, beginning with her enigmatic conversation with Michael about a mission he can’t refuse.
For a while there, the subsequent sequence where Michael goes from carriage to carriage trying to identify the hidden passenger is intriguing. But The Commuter fails to sustain its momentum as the pace becomes erratic. Then there’s the elaborate conspiracy added into the already-convoluted plot, which is sadly executed in a muddled way. This is especially true when the third act leads to an inevitable exposition-heavy scenario that almost grinds to a halt.
Despite most of its shortcomings, The Commuter still has its moments. Apart from Neeson, Vera Farmiga made a lasting impression albeit her limited screen time. Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill, in the meantime, show up with their respective decent supporting roles as Michael’s former cop partner, Alex Murphy and Captain Hawthorne. As for Collet-Serra, he does keep things interesting with his fancy bag of visual tricks. Sure, the inferior CG tends to rob the intensity of the movie. But at least, it delivers its goods. With the help of Paul Cameron’s nifty camerawork, Collet-Serra manages to orchestrate a few showy set-pieces within the confines of a train. There is one particular sequence that impresses me the most: a seemingly single-take fighting sequence involving Michael tries to stop his attacker with an axe and other instruments. It’s just too bad the climactic over-the-top train collision, which is heavily promoted in the trailers, feels strangely out of place for a Hitchcockian thriller.