Friday, January 12, 2018

In Theaters: THE COMMUTER (2018)

(US/France - 2018)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh, Ella-Rae Smith, Roland Moller,  Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Clara Lago, Colin McFarlane, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Damson Idris. (PG-13, 105 mins)

Not even Liam Neeson expected TAKEN to jumpstart a new career as an action hero in his late 50s way back in 2009. In the ensuing years, he's enjoyed much success with two TAKEN sequels and string of other hits that also led to the Neeson formula giving a bunch of other respectable, award-winning actors their shot at kicking ass and blowing shit up as they push 60, among them Kevin Costner in 3 DAYS TO KILL, Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER, Sean Penn in THE GUNMAN, and even the unlikely Gerard Depardieu in the justifiably little-seen VIKTOR. One could even tangentially connect the EXPENDABLES franchise to the unexpected success of TAKEN, which Fox inexplicably had little faith in, sitting on it for over a year and almost dumping it directly to DVD before taking a gamble that paid off. Workaholic Neeson's action movies became such a staple at multiplexes in the early 2010s that it's hard to believe THE COMMUTER is his first film of this type since 2015's RUN ALL NIGHT. He then took a bit of a break from genre fare, appearing in a supporting role as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the 2016 South Korean WWII epic OPERATION CHROMITE, motion-capturing the title character in J.A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS, co-starring as a conflicted priest in Martin Scorsese's arthouse drama SILENCE, and playing Watergate whistleblower "Deep Throat" in 2017's barely-released MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE. Action Neeson is back in THE COMMUTER, and though it's only January, it's already a safe bet that this will be one of the year's most stupidly entertaining thrillers.

THE COMMUTER starts out implausible and grows so exponentially ridiculous as it goes on that even the most jaded, cynical cineaste will likely have a goofy grin on their face by the end of it. Neeson is Michael MacCauley, a Dublin-born ex-NYC cop turned life insurance salesman who goes into the midtown Manhattan office one day and leaves with a severance package. After losing everything in the economic downturn of 2008 and with two mortgages and a son about to head off to college, MacCauley is living paycheck to paycheck, and isn't sure how to tell his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) that he's now unemployed at 60. After meeting his old partner and non-Robocop Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for a few drinks to gather up the courage to tell Karen the news, MacCauley heads to the train for the commute home to Long Island, where he typically engages in small-talk with all the regular riders, like grizzled, blue collar Walt (Jonathan Banks). But this ride home is different. MacCauley is approached by mystery woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who proposes a hypothetical scenario: there's $25,000 hidden in a restroom on the train and additional $75,000 after if MacCauley locates someone on the train named "Prynne" who's getting off at Cold Spring, the seventh stop on the commute. The hypothetical would also involve planting a GPS tracker in "Prynne"'s bag and just walking away with no further concern for what he did or why he had to do it. Joanna gets off the train at the next stop but continues to taunt MacCauley by phone to prove that she always has eyes and ears on him and soon enough, he's caught in a Hitchcockian nightmare and a race against time to find "Prynne"--a murder witness who needs to be eliminated--that intensifies after he receives a threat that Karen and their son will be killed if he refuses to comply.

That's the set-up, but the screenwriters and director Jaume Collet-Serra--his fourth collaboration with Neeson following UNKNOWN, NON-STOP, and RUN ALL NIGHT--let the absurdities pile up at a breakneck pace. There's the old mystery trope of getting all the passengers in one car to figure out someone's secret identity. There's a set-up to frame MacCauley and make it look like he's holding the passengers hostage. There's a cartoonish CGI derailment (it's really bad) as the film briefly turns into an UNSTOPPABLE-style disaster movie. Then there's some police corruption and a cover-up, some literary references, and some jabs at Wall Street for the economy tanking a decade ago (MacCauley, after hearing an obnoxious d-bag mention he once worked for Goldman Sachs: "On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!"). There's even a SPARTACUS homage. Collet-Serra throws in some neat directorial touches, like an impressive opening credits sequence that shows the daily grind of MacCauley's morning routine over the years, and some amusing billboards outside the train and ads inside that almost seem to be taunting him ("You could be home right now!"). He also pulls off some showy, CGI-abetted camera moves with POV shots through ticket stub hole punches, and 65-year-old Neeson jumping from car to car and even being dragged under the train, rolling over the tracks and then sprinting to jump back on the train. And you know what? As long as you don't ask questions--such as "If Joanna can see what's happening on the train at all times, then how can she have no way of figuring out who 'Prynne' is?" and "Why is the CGI so terrible?" and "Why doesn't this prominently-billed name actor appear to have much to do with the plot?"--THE COMMUTER is a master class in check-your-brain-at-the-door, popcorn entertainment. Admittedly, having someone like Neeson as the focus helps sell a lot of the more silly elements. His very particular set of skills include conveying steely, teeth-gritting gravitas as effectively as any movie star since the heyday of Kirk Douglas, and he manages to keep the drama somewhat grounded even as the events escalate into all-out insanity by the end. I didn't realize until seeing him hanging off a speeding CGI train or barking into a phone just how much I've missed this Neeson since RUN ALL NIGHT. Is it formulaic and a bit recycled? Hell yes it is, but Neeson and Collet-Serra are a proven team that works. THE COMMUTER is dumb, it isn't high art, but it's an absolute blast.

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