Mild SPOILERS ahead.
January has, for as long as I can recall, always been something of a dumping ground for the movies the studios have little to no faith in, so much so that I'll admit to being guilty of getting hyped while watching a trailer for something only to have those aspirations dashed at the reveal the flick in question has a first week of January release. And while that attitude might seem callous and dismissive, just so you think I'm not a complete monster, here are a few of the cinematic gems that have been regurgitated onto the silver screens of Januaries past: Biker Boyz, Elektra, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne, In the Name of the King, basically anything else by Uwe Boll, and this masterpiece of filmmaking:
You get the idea. So when I saw the first and only trailer for The Commuter, the most recent entry in the seemingly endless procession of Liam Neeson punches people in __________ movies, I already wasn't particularly enthralled. On the one hand, it was being directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who managed to breathe new, much-needed life into the Shit-There-Are-Sharks-After-Me genre with 2016's nail-biter The Shallows. But on the other, it was coming out in the middle of January, which is as much a sign of a DOA as, I don't know, showing up dead on someone's doorstep somewhere, I guess.
Our story, such as it is, follows Neeson's Michael McCauley, a former police officer turned insurance salesman turned unemployed father of one child and two mortgages when the soulless, dead-eyed corporate overlords at his company eject him after years of faithful diligence. He's a stand-up guy, a decent Joe. He's a good husband and father, he has drinks at the local pub with his old cop buddy Alex Murphy--
--and he hates the system, man. All those one-percenters, those hedge fund babies and Wall Street types who make their way by standing on the shoulders of the working stiffs - Michael McCauley's got no love for those cats. And neither should you. Really. The movie is very clear about that.
He's been riding the same train for ten years, exchanging niceties with the same faces day in and day out, but today is different. With the deadline for his kid's tuition looming and unable to tell his wife about his newly doled-out financial misfortune, it appears all hope is lost until Joanna, played by the ethereal Vera Farmiga, sits across from him and offers him the solution to all his worldly woes: $100,000 if he can locate a single passenger aboard the train who is carrying something of extreme importance before they reach the end of the line.
McCauley accepts, quickly learning that failure to accomplish his task will result in the loss of innocent lives, and success will mean a horrible end to the passenger in question. It doesn't take long for this little game to spiral into a full-on conspiracy of massive, career-ending and prison term-sentencing proportions. Admittedly, I found myself roped into the narrative, which was pleasantly surprising. I like anything where a bunch of people are stuck in one place and one of them is not who they seem.
So McCauley starts to question the passengers, which, not at all shockingly, leads to some predictable and irritating foolishness, some legitimately tense moments, and two downright righteous hand-to-hand fight scenes, the latter of which is played as a single take. Now, here's where I have to give Collet-Serra some props. The fights are very cool, and while the editing and camerawork throughout the rest of the feature borders on nausea-inducing, here it works really well. Liam Neeson is about 138 years old, so it takes a fair measure of cinematic sleight of hand to trick the eye into believing he's still got his now-trademark "particular set of skills," and Commuter largely delivers that.
When he's not fighting someone, however, the film suffers because, for reasons passing understanding, Collet-Serra wants to shoot everything with an apparently The Shakier The Better-brand handheld camera, which is just not a good choice. Look. I get it. I understand the why. Handheld gives the viewer a feeling of being there. It's organic and inclusive, and it makes all the sense in the world when it's two guys caught in the throes of a desperate, live or die duel, but when it's two guys sitting at the bar, for the love of God, mount the camera.
On the train, I felt like I was in the middle of those fights. In the bar scene, I felt like I was being strangled by a guy trying to watch two other guys drink a beer. Hell! Paul Greengrass would have been reaching for the Dramamine during some of those scenes.
And another thing. This has happened twice this week, once in The Commuter and again in an overblown Indian actioner called Tiger Zinda Hai. I'm no director, but I'm pretty good at comprehending both the need for and the proper execution of rising action, so if your film features a series of escalating fight sequences and goes out of its way to build to a final one between your hero and your villain, your last fight cannot be less impressive than the two that preceded it. And it damn sure better not be shorter!
I also have to take this movie to task over its reliance on CGI. No, on its reliance on bad CGI. We all remember that scene from the end of the first Mission: Impossible wherein a computer-generated and conspicuously taller than we all know he is in real life Tom Cruise is thrown by the shockwave off an exploding helicopter onto the nose of a speeding bullet train. Well, there's a moment like that in The Commuter, inevitably positioned near the film's end because no movie about a hijacked train should end without said train running wholly out of every conceivable metric of control, but whereas M:I had special effects done by the illustrious computer wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, Commuter features effects by, I don't know, Bob's Bargain Basement or something not much unlike. They're almost distractingly jarring, and sadly go a long way to pulling me out of the reality of the film, which is saying something when you take into account just how absurd things get by the Third Act.
All in all, though, it's a better than average ride (sorry), even if only slightly better. The film takes its time with a couple of philosophies, nearly to the point of ad nauseam. One of which is this notion that doing the right thing ultimately leads to an unfulfilling life, a life where you're assured to be trampled on by the powers that be and left behind by those out for themselves, ie. everyone else. The only way to actively combat this is to become the taker, lest everything you've earned be taken from you. It's a sad conceit that lies squarely at the heart of the film and in McCauley's 100-minute dilemma.
The other, brought to stark, embarrassingly blatant light via its shameless, Spartacus-esque finale, is a message about standing up for the strangers in our lives, a hot topic in today's political climate, which seeks everyday to demonize more and more of the so-called outsiders in both our country and the world at large, and while the sentiment is valid and even welcome, I wish the movie had found a less pointed way to relay it to me. The Commuter is a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them.
My Rating: 3 out of 5