Cinema Dispatch: The Commuter

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The Commuter and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Now that the end of year hold overs are finishing up their rounds at the box office, it’s time for the TRUE January releases to show themselves which are becoming less associated with absolutely dreadful movies with each successive year, but can still be considered a dumping ground for stuff the studios felt couldn’t hack it in more competitive months.  I guess a Liam Neeson action flick isn’t the WORST way to herald in the New Year, but then I’m pretty sure there are people who still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about Taken 3 and the infamous fourteen cut fence jump.  Will this movie be another strike against the increasingly fragile belief that January films tend to be terrible, or will this only reinforce those notions for yet another year?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with exceedingly average older white dude Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) going about his daily routine and living the exceedingly average older white dude life.  That is until he gets fired from his exceedingly average older white dude job for lousy capitalist reasons, and is now facing the prospect of financial ruin; right before his son heads off to college too!  Things seem rather for the guy as he boards the train with nothing to look forward to other than telling his family the devastating news, but fortune seems to be in his favor as a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him twenty-five grand now and seventy-five grand later if he can just do one small insignificant thing.  Find a person on this train that has something of value in their bag, is traveling to Cold Spring, and goes by the name “Prynne”.  The woman gets off at the next stop and while Michael is more than happy to hold onto that twenty-five grand she gave him up front, he feels a bit hesitant about finding this person to claim the other seventy-five.  Fortunately for THE BAD GUYSTM that the mysterious woman is forking for, as well as the audience I guess, they kidnapped his family anyway so he has no choice but to find the passenger known as “Prynne” before anything happens to them!  Will Michael not only find “Prynne” but figure out what THE BAD GUYSTM are planning to do once they find them?  What can Michael do when every move he makes is being watched by THE BAD GUYSTM… somehow?  How many non-Taken Taken movies is Liam Neeson gonna have to make before they give him one that doesn’t suck!?

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“I have a particular set of skills, but stopping a freaking train isn’t one of them!”

The term Mindless Action Flick gets thrown around quite a bit, but you know, the term doesn’t REALLY apply to many of the films it’s often associated with.  Even something as poorly plotted as the Transformers franchise can be more accurately described as a SPECTACLE as the primary focus is on visuals and action then on selling a compelling story.  I prefer to save the term Mindless Action Flick for movies that have at least SOME stake in their plot being appreciated and enjoyed beyond its function of getting us from one action scene to another, and I bring all this up because The Commuter is utterly (and I mean UTTERLY) asinine from beginning to end.  It baffles me that acclaimed actor Liam Neeson’s second wind career of being an action has led to so many trite entries in the genre, but here we are; stuck with another inept action thriller that’s trying to recapture the lightening in a bottle success of Taken that not even its own sequels could recreate.  Now there are some good elements here and the seeds of a genuinely good film can be seeing peeking out at the margins, but the suspension of disbelief required to make this movie work was a bridge too far; by which I mean it’s a bridge from New York to Spain made out of Styrofoam, discarded newspapers, and Elmer’s glue.  Not even the waterproof kind!  The really crappy stuff they use in the glue sticks!

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“I have a very particular set of skills, but picking scripts isn’t one of them.”

Where to even begin with this?  At no point does the absurdly convoluted plan by THE BAD GUYSTM make the least bit of sense, and their methods of pulling it off are completely unexplained.  Yeah, I think that’s a good place to start!  The amount of control and insight into what’s going on in the train at ANY given moment (they basically know exactly what he’s doing at all times) is not only enough to completely shatter one’s sense of disbelief, it also brings up the question of why they even NEED Liam Neeson in the first place.  This isn’t like The Game where the end goal is simply to fuck with the protagonist; he is just a means to an end, and a rouge one at that!  You can’t just suddenly back a person into a corner and expect them to cooperate, so why did THE BAD GUYSTM decide to have this ENORMOUS variable right in the middle of such a critical plan?  ESPECIALLY a variable resisting them every step of the way!?  It’d be one thing if THE BAD GUYSTM seemed in any way desperate or were scrambling to come up with a plan, but like I said, they HAVE resources at their disposal; a lot of them.  They could have hired a hitman and stuck their ass on the train to find the passenger!  They could have waited at the Cold Springs station to see who is getting off there and have ALL those hired goons that were peppered throughout the city (all to strike fear into the heart of Liam Neeson through ridiculous means) follow THOSE people to narrow down who’s the one they’re after!  There were a MILLION better ways for THE BAD GUYSTM to pull this off than using Liam Neeson, and it’s impossible to take the movie seriously because of that.

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“I have a very particular set of skills, but selling this ridiculous bullshit isn’t one of them.”

You know what could have easily saved this movie?  Liam Neeson shouldn’t have been the hero.  NO seriously, if Neeson was ACTUALLY motivated to find this person instead of just threatened into doing so, the movie could have saved so much of its time and energy trying to justify itself which it still utterly fails to do.  We wouldn’t need the constant (and completely ludicrous) reminders that THE BAD GUYSTM are always watching and always in control, and the gray are of the situation he finds himself in (he REALLY needs the money, but what harm will he cause?) would make for a much more compelling character.  The movie starts by giving us as the audience all the justification needed (i.e. money problems) for Michael to make this studio decision, but I guess there can’t be even the SLIGHTEST bit of uncertainty in the righteousness of his motives, so we have to break every last shred of common sense to still get him into this situation in order for the movie to happen.  I’m sure the decision behind this was made so audiences can unequivocally root for the guy, but it’s not like we don’t have a long history of great characters who compromise themselves (or are outright evil) serving as protagonists, and looking at the end result here I can’t help but think it was a mistake to take such an unyielding stance on it.

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“I have a particular set of skills, but being even somewhat morally ambiguous isn’t one of them.”

It sucks because there ARE some good parts to this that are ruined by the unimaginably awful plan and how conveniently written THE BAD GUYSTM are.  It’s impossible to ignore how little the film explains the ways in which THE BAD GUYSTM can “see” everything, but the movie does a really good job of building paranoia early on by integrating the social anxieties that are almost unique to public transportation.  People are always looking at him out of the coroner of the frame or in brief cuts after Liam Neeson makes a bit of progress in the case, and had this been a COMPETENT film it could have really built off of that and made this a much more of a psychological thriller.  Ultimately though it doesn’t matter because no amount of Lookie Lous  or Rubber Neckers could POSSIBLY be seeing everything that NEEDs to be seen for THE BAD GUYSTM to know as much as they do; not to mention the logistical nightmare it’d be if there really was THAT many hired goons reporting back to THE BAD GUYSTM whenever Liam Neeson makes a move.  In addition to that, if there’s one point that’s unambigiously decent and isn’t really affected THAT much by the crappy villains’ silly plan, it’s the action.  Sure it’s ridiculous, but at least THIS is the kind of ridiculousness I can get behind!  The over the top set pieces, while not the BEST looking, at least follow a certain amount of consistency with actual set ups and pay offs for key moments, and they do kick things up a notch in just the right places to keep this from getting boring.  It also helps that the cast is solid across the board with Liam Neeson still proving that he’s perfectly suited for this kind of action role, but imagine what all these actors and all these set pieces could have used for if the script didn’t fail them at every turn.  It’s almost like the story… completely DERAILS everything else!  Huh?  Huh!?

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“I have a particular set of skills, and being a likable lead in action movies IS in fact one of them!”

This movie is just bad from a scripting level and it was to the point that it straight up pissed me off.  Maybe you won’t get as worked up about the impossible to take seriously villains and their ridiculously impossible plan to find this one person, but it was too much for me to bear which sunk any hopes of me enjoying the damn thing.  Maybe it could serve as a useful example of how NOT to write a mystery or maybe it could work for a Bad Movie Night if you’re going into it knowing just how hopelessly ludicrous it is.  Do not waste your time seeing this in the theater, and if you must see it wait for a home release.  At least then you can turn the damn thing off if you end up sitting there like a Grumpy Gus which wasn’t an option for ME sitting in that dark theater and feeling like I could be doing so many better things with my time.

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