*. A mysterious woman introduces herself to you on a commuter train. She gives you a task to perform. Do it and you get $100,000. Fail and your family dies. You’ll probably die too. Hell, everyone on the train will likely die.
*. That sounds a lot like the previous collaboration of director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson, Non-Stop, where the action took place on a plane, with Neeson playing another ex-cop trying to identify the bad guy before a bomb goes off. What it also sounds like, in broader outline, is a Game of Death film, where an innocent is plucked out of his or her everyday life and made to play a game for mortal stakes.
*. It’s unclear, however, exactly who or what is behind the game. The various conspirators we meet all seem to be mere flunkies, or in some cases perhaps conscripts to the cause who are as compromised or unwilling as Michael MacCauley (Neeson). This is something else The Commuter has in common with Game of Death movies (think of the end of Saw). Even Joanna may be little more than a contractor, and thus expendable.
*. As to what the precious evidence that must be destroyed consists of, I don’t think we’re ever told. Surely, however, for an organization as powerful as this retrieving it needn’t have been quite so complicated a matter. Did no one tell them that the more parts there are to a conspiracy the more likely it is to go awry? Economize, economize.
*. Is the fact that such background is missing a drawback? Not really, though it is uncommonly lazy. What I found significant, however, is that I didn’t care. The whole premise seemed so stupid it made no difference to me what was really going on. When Michael is told that he doesn’t know the power of the forces he’s up against I just shrugged. As a plot device this was all a wave of the hand anyway.
*. I also didn’t understand the behaviour of the FBI agent or what he was supposed to be doing. In this respect he is the exact counterpart of the second air marshal in Non-Stop, who I couldn’t figure out either. Ryan Engle is credited as screenwriter for both films and I have to wonder if he was just recycling characters as well as plots.
*. The thing about movies of this kind is that they are all about being clever. The hero is cast in the role of detective or puzzle-solver, and the game is filled with devious twists. If you’re not tricky enough you’re going to disappoint the audience.
*. Prepare to be disappointed here. There’s nothing tricky about The Commuter at all. It’s final act even turns into the old runaway-train gag, topped off with one of those “oh my god, the friend of the hero is actually the villain!” moments. There is no suspense. There is little imagination. In one of the fight scenes Neeson has to beat on someone with an electric guitar. That, I’m afraid, is as good as it gets.
*. There’s not much to add. The only thing to like here is Neeson, and even he’s starting to seem tired as an action hero. The best I can find myself saying is that he’s putting a little more effort into these roles than Bruce Willis is these days. Faint praise indeed, but the rest of the film is just a bore.