'The Commuter' a gripping thriller in that winning Liam Neeson formula
Posted January 10, 2018 2:09 p.m. EST
Byline: By Mick LaSalle
Liam Neeson's action movies have a built-in appeal, whether good (``Taken,'' ``Run All Night'') or only so-so (``Taken 3''), but ``The Commuter'' is securely in the good category. It weds all the winning aspects of the Neeson formula to a ticking-clock plot, full of tense moments and gripping sequences.
The big innovation of the Neeson formula -- the eureka discovery of ``Taken'' -- is that action can work in a big way when presented as a traditional rags to riches story: Guy starts off down, mistreated, misunderstood. Then there's a horrible crisis, and he rises to it. He finds complete redemption. Everyone understands that this is one heck of a man.
Here's what's interesting about this: Other action movies try to galvanize audience interest by making you hate the bad guy. Much is done at the start of such movies to create antipathy and anxiety. But in the Neeson formula, the villains can be vague. We just want Neeson to win because he deserves it, because we know how much he needs it, and because -- like all of us -- he's had to put up with plenty and is entitled to a little peace, for crying out loud.
And so, at the start of ``The Commuter,'' they lay it on thick: We see him getting up every morning at 6 a.m., day in and day out, in the summer and the winter. We see him riding the commuter train, into and out of New York City. He and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) worry about the kid's tuition. Oh, and by the way, you remember that 2008 recession? He lost everything. Every last penny. Of course, he did. This is Liam Neeson. He can't lose a quarter of his savings, or half. He had to get wiped out.
So one day he goes to work at his job at the insurance agency, and we see what a fine salesman he is, with a genuine concern for his customers. It's just another day of being a decent person, playing the rules. And then the boss calls him in, and guess what? They're laying him off. So he's 60, has two mortgages, a kid about to start college, and now he's unemployed.
This set-up takes maybe 10 minutes of screen time, and even though it couldn't be more obvious and manipulative, it's brilliant. First it's telling the audience, ``This guy is you, or could be you, or your father, or your husband.'' Second, this kind of fellow -- a humble man of hidden gifts, trying to do the right thing, is perfectly suited to Neeson's air of put-upon probity. We feel sorry for him, but we also want him to get mad. Because when he gets mad . . .
So there he is on the train back to the suburbs, pink slip in hand, when a beautiful, mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him with a proposition: For $25,000 now and $75,000 later, all he has to do is find someone on the train named ``Prynne'' and attach a tracking device to this person's bag. That's $100,000 -- a lot of money to a guy whose mortgage check might bounce, and that's this month's mortgage, from the days when he still had a job.
Need it be said that things get complicated? That there's no such thing as an easy 100 grand? We know this going in, but what's terrific about ``The Commuter'' is all the ways that it gets complicated. First he's looking for a bag. Soon he's firing shots inside the train cabin and yelling, ``They're going to kill my family!'' Nobody comes unglued better than Neeson, and no one stays more focused and more intense even as the glue is coming loose. And then there is at least one spectacular action sequence, but you can discover that in the moment.
It doesn't matter that, by the end, most viewers would be hard pressed to pass a quiz about the specifics of the story. Nor should it especially concern us that this movie is very close to a commuter-train remake of Neeson's ``Non-Stop'' (2014), set on an airplane. This is a winning formula, and if the ocean liner version of this movie were to open next week, I'd be happy to see it.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
3 stars out of 4 stars Action. Starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Elizabeth McGovern. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. (PG-13. 104 minutes.)