Film Review By Christian Tesfaye: Commuter to Terrible Third-act

Liam Neeson is at it again. He is battling bad guys, this time on a train in The Commuter. But other than that plot element, there is not much to distinguish the film from the multiple action movies that have been trying to emulate the success of Taken. It was hollow enough to get Christian Tesfaye to award 4 out of 10 stars.

If one looks closely, traces of how much cinema is inspired by theatre are evident. We see it in lighting, in dialogue construction and even on how characters move and talk. We also at times see it in certain movies’ choice to adhere to a single set. In the olden times, there was much of this, mostly because more films were adapted from plays and it was not as convenient to have too many set changes as it is today. Great examples are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

As cameras became lighter and the mood of the cinema-going audience changed, Hollywood moved on from such films, even as some movies still used a single set as the primary location where much of the action happened. Take the 1994 Speed, which takes place inside a bus moving at over 50 miles an hour, or Air Force One, which takes place inside, well, Air Force One. For such films, the setting is not a mere representation of the characters’ environment, but a crucial plot device that drives the movie.

To that league, there is a new addition. It is The Commuter, starring Liam Neeson, the only actor in memory who became an action star in his 50s. It has the usual Liam Neeson traits: punching, kicking, shooting, vehicular crashes, a silly plot and an unreserved intention to repeat the success of the 2009 Taken.

It is about Michael (Neeson), who takes the commute of his life. He has been travelling along the same route, on the same train, for the past several years. He knows most of the regular commuters but meets someone new – a mysterious a woman that calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She is beautiful, well-spoken and wants to strike up a conversation with 60-year-old Michael. That there should have been food for thought for the protagonist, but Michael falls right into her hands.

She promises 25,000 dollars, and another 75,000 dollars once the job is done. All Michael has to do is put a tracking device on a commuter, “that does not belong”. That is all he has to go on, and he will have no clue what is to happen to the commuter, but, hey, it is 100,000 dollars for one train ride’s work. He accepts the down payment.

But his consciousness creeps in, even if he has lost his job that very same day, and needs to pay for his son’s tuition. He instead tries to uncover a murder conspiracy, and protect the commuter.

The first half of the movie is not bad. In fact, the first 10 minutes are exciting, especially how the film chooses to show us that Michael is a lifelong commuter. It is visually engrossing, and has a sort of emotional touch to it – setting the audience up for what unfortunately are unworthy second and third acts.

In contrast, how the film ends is almost criminal. No movie should complicate the plot this much and expect to unravel everything with one swoop. The film’s villain first seems like an omnipotent, omnipresent being, only to end up defeated because a phrase was repeated two too many times.

The director is Jaume Collet-Serra, a man that has been tasked to help Neeson pull off another Taken. The duo has collaborated on the action-thrillers Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. The last two have a similarity to The Commuter in that both are confined either to a specific set or a time frame.

Non-stop takes place in an aeroplane, where Neeson plays an air marshal, which similarly sets out with a mystery too scientific for the filmmakers to unravel believably. Run All Night is not a mystery, which plays out through the confines of a single night, but had a plot arc that likewise was too reasonable to have escaped the sensibility of its makers. If I were Neeson, I would cut ties with Collet-Serra.

The Neeson-vehicle Taken was a pleasant surprise. It had all the suave, the grit, the brutal action and the heart. I will not go as far as to call it an original, but it was the necessary kick the genre needed ever since The Matrix trilogies – which had their own charm – hyped up the number of henchmen a protagonist could take at once in an action sequence. Taken showed us that one-on-one fight scenes, where the protagonist almost gets defeated, are more exciting and realistic-looking.

The film is most memorable for its detail that almost succeeds in persuading us that it is possible for the lead character to track back his daughter in that short period. Neeson played the part of a retired CIA man that will go to great lengths to get his daughter back, driven by unbelievable skillsets but more importantly desperation.

Unforunately, none of his later films have these features. They are mere action movies, less interesting for the protagonist is too old or is not even caught up in a set of circumstances that make sense. Neeson has ridden the success of Taken as far as it can go. It is about time to let go.

By Christian Tesfaye
Exclusive to Fortune

Published on Jan 20,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 925]



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