Critic-Proof “Commuter” is the Perfect January Wasteland Movie

Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is having a bad day. The 60-year old ex-cop just got fired from his insurance job of 10 years and his mobile phone is stolen on a crowded train platform.  You’d think it would get better when the lovely Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him on the train and strikes up a conversation.  Unfortunately for him, how often do bad days turn good?  She makes him an offer he can’t refuse, a glorified form of blackmail that places not only his life in danger, but the lives of his family and everyone else on the train.

MacCauley/Neeson is The Commuter, the hero of director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Orphan, The Shallows) latest action-packed thriller.  The movie is like Non-Stop (2014) on a train, which isn’t surprising considering it was also directed by Collet-Serra and was written, in part, by Ryan Engle.  This seems to be the creative team’s MO.  Engle adds finishing touches to scripts written by first-time screenwriting teams.  For Non-Stop, it was John W. Richardson & Christopher Roach.  For The Commuter, it’s Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi.I like The Commuter better than Non-Stop.  Everything about its absolutely ridiculous plot and completely unbelievable delivery works exactly as intended.  With only one truly cringeworthy moment during the climax, it’s the perfect movie of its kind… no more and no less.  In fact, this makes it critic-proof.  Any complaint I might have could easily be answered with the question, “Yeah… and so what?”  I didn’t expect a movie this entertaining in the January wasteland where bad movies are dumped to fool moviegoers high on the holiday hits.

One reason it works so well for me is the supporting cast. Farmiga makes anything worth watching.  However, there are also brief appearances by other actors who have received (and will receive) much more acclaim for a different standard of movie (or television show.)  Patrick Wilson plays Alex Murphy, MacCauley’s old partner.  Jonathan Banks is Walt, a regular passenger on the train.  Sam Neill is Captain Hawthorne, MacCauley’s old boss.  And Elizabeth McGovern is his lovely wife.  The mere presence of these professionals raises the quality.

Then there’s Neeson himself. I haven’t seen all the movies in which he’s played the sometimes likely, sometimes unlikely, hero.  In this one, though, the role suits him like a comfortable glove.  He’s playing roughly his actual age and, at 65, he’s not the buff, retired CIA agent he was in Taken (2018).  He doesn’t perform any physically impossible acts and takes his share of the punches.  What is really appealing about him, though, is his character.  As a down on his luck family man who clearly knows right and wrong and does not waver, no one could do better than him.

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