Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new Liam Neeson potboiler is headed for theaters, so we’re singling out the best movies of the star’s aging ass-kicker renaissance (excepting The Grey, which we’ve already covered for a past Watch This series).
The Commuter (2018)
“I’m 60 years old,” retired detective Mike MacCauley (Liam Neeson) laments during a climactic speech in The Commuter. “What have I got left to offer?” It probably goes without saying that Mike will prove his worth, saving the day with the kind of dogged determination and aching-joints-be-damned physical commitment that have become hallmarks of Neeson’s tenure as an action hero of a certain, unlikely age. But while the star’s post-Taken reinvention is, to some extent, a flattering fantasy—for Neeson and maybe some of his older fans alike—what makes many of his vehicles so fun and even affecting is that they often refuse to disguise the vulnerabilities of the interchangeable characters he plays. While most fifty- to sixtysomething actors make running around, kicking ass, and taking names look like a midlife crisis—the onscreen equivalent of buying a sports car—only Neeson regularly portrays guys who seem to actually be going through one. They act (or at least acknowledge) their age, even when risking a hip injury jumping onto a moving train or fist-fighting a thug.
The Commuter is the fourth (and most recent) film Neeson has made with Spanish genre specialist Jaume Collet-Serra. It plays like something of a spiritual sequel to their best collaboration, the locked-cabin-door mystery Non-Stop, with that movie’s oversized commercial airliner traded out for a New York commuter train bound for the burbs. Neeson’s Mike, freshly fired from his insurance-salesman job, gets roped into a criminal conspiracy by a stranger on the train, who offers him $100,000 to identify who on board, besides herself, isn’t a regular. Seems like an ex-detective might more quickly realize he’s falling into a classic fall-guy scheme, but another fun aspect of the Neeson grizzled-badass canon is that his characters are often flawed and occasionally incompetent in their feverish scrambles—they fuck up in the way an actual retired cop might when thrown into life-and-death circumstances.
Neeson spends most of the movie wandering from car to car, trying to find someone on the train who doesn’t belong—and eventually, protect them from whoever’s coerced him into doing the finding. As in Non-Stop, there’s a large cast of character actors and familiar faces (the latter includes Jonathan Banks and Florence Pugh), all playing eccentric civilians and potential suspects. That Neeson also spends a lot of time in the film barking into a cell phone is among the only aspects that recall his Taken trilogy. The Commuter, like his other work with Collet-Serra, is closer in spirit to Agatha Christie or Hitchcock than a steroidal action exercise—though there is an admittedly enjoyable, digitally accomplished one take in which Mike spars with an assassin, eventually dispatching him via adjacent, oncoming rail traffic.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that The Commuter’s weakest stretch is its final one, when Mike has to start behaving like a bona fide action hero, as opposed to a dude who’s been conscripted, against his will and better judgment and even best interests, into the role. But until that slightly deflating climax, it’s a stylish, low-on-frills suspense contraption, beginning with a terrific prologue montage that lays out Mike’s morning routine through a series of repetitive variations on its steps. And like Non-Stop, the film has a political dimension—a mostly unobtrusive sympathy for the working-class Americans abandoned after the 2008 financial collapse. It’s an element that aligns rather well with Neeson’s reasonably credible approximation of the everyman. That’s the true coup of the actor’s ass-kicking renaissance: not that a sextagenarian could bust heads, but that a Hollywood movie star could come across as such a believably average man, at least until he proves what he has left to offer.