The sole kernel of fun in last year’s over-hated natural disaster thriller Geostorm was its function as a conservative fantasy in which one white, middle aged tough guy fights off a massive conspiracy all on his lonesome. The latest action vehicle for Liam Neeson, who knows a thing or two about middle aged white guy power fantasies at this point in his career, pushes that same dynamic to a much more satisfying, deliriously inane extreme. Director Jaume Collet-Serra already reframed Neeson’s defining late-career gimmick in Non-Stop, which was essentially Taken on a Plane. His latest collaboration with the forever-slumming-it actor, The Commuter, flips the script again with the paradigm-shifting concept of, wait for it, Taken on a Train. Neeson stars as the titular commuter, a hardworking family man struggling to maintain an upper middle-class lifestyle without a proper safety net. Just when his job, his family, and his sense of security are taken away from him, he’s offered a quick, sleazy way to make a cool $100k on his commute home. He must make a choice: blindly go along with the flow or stand up for the little guy and take down a massive conspiracy network one bare-knuckled punch at a time. The Commuter isn’t exactly capital “R” Republican in its politics; at the very least it musters a lot of residual anger from the 2008 market crisis, even including the line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs! On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!” The film’s pro-cop philosophy, “Millennials, huh?” patronizing, Info Wars-style paranoia, and general macho swagger are all informed by a conservative tinge, though, and it’s perversely fun to watch that sensibility stretch to such absurd lengths in this kind of disposable, low-rent/high-concept thriller.
Freshly let go from his unglamorous job as an insurance salesman by a heartless Corporation, our ex-cop Hero Dad has little to lose as he sullenly rides home on a packed commuter train. He’s a hardworking man who plays by the rules in a mind-numbing routine, but he gets screwed anyway because the system is rigged. In this moment of desperation & financial despair, he’s approached by a mysterious organization and offered $100k to do something he is uniquely qualified for: pointing out a fellow passenger “who does not belong” on the train he rides every day. This setup does not entirely make sense, as he’s both tasked to single out an out-of-place stranger and told that there are other strangers on the train watching his every move, which you would think just muddles the assignment. It doesn’t take long or the focus to shift away from this original moral quandary (which feels somewhat like an exhausted, late 90s John Woo adapting The Box). Neeson’s middle-aged toughie quickly realizes he’s being blackmailed into committing unwitting acts of Evil and the rest of the film details his David vs. Goliath heroics in taking down the mysterious, all-powerful Organization responsible for his predicament from within the speeding train. His triumph as the hero hinges both on his ability to see through the Fake News & truthiness of the world and on the brunt force of his traditional masculinity, something that’s been eroded by the daily Corporate grind of commuting by train in a cheap suit to provide for his family. I’m not sure how much longer Neeson will be able to coast along in these ludicrous Tough Dad action thrillers, but The Commuter hits a nice sweet spot where he’s still virile enough for the violence to be passably convincing and the premises must reach far beyond rational thought to keep the formula novel. It’s fun trash.
Much like Collet-Serra’s fun-trash shark pic The Shallows, The Commuter feels a little unnecessarily labored & delayed in its setup. Once his aggressively idiotic plots get cooking, however, they capture a distinct 90s thriller spirit that used to light up summertime marquees, but have since been ghettoized on a straight-to-VOD release path. Even The Commuter’s gloriously cheesy tagline, “Lives are on the line,” feels like a relic from an ancient mode of blockbuster filmmaking. Where that 90s thriller throwback vibe might disappoint is in this film’s general deficiency of action. Besides an inevitable special effects climax involving the train itself, there are only a few moments of genuine action that make appropriate use of the train setting’s close quarters combat tension. The most memorable of these involves Neeson fighting off a guitar-wielding conspirator with a fire hatchet, in what’s effectively an axe-on-axe fight. Mostly, though, The Commuter is less entertaining for its Loud, Dumb Action than it is for its Loud, Dumb Ideas. The film recalls high-concept thrillers like the David Fincher joint The Game or the M. Night Shyamalan-penned Devil in its paranoia-driven sociology experiments where every character is an anonymous archetype and no one is to be trusted. I probably shouldn’t take so much delight in how films like Geostorm & The Commuter adapt that conspiracy theorist hero worship to the Fake News, Alex Jones era, but I just find it so damn silly. There’s a whole legion of dangerous white, American men out there who believe they’re living in some kind of rigged, The Matrix-type system where they’re the only dude in the world smart enough to crack the code of What’s Really Going On, when they’re actually just, for instance, some boring ex-cop who got laid off from selling insurance. Watching that kind of outsized power fantasy play out onscreen to its most illogical extreme should probably be frightening, but instead it tickles me immensely.