Last Train to Daftsville
Your regular correspondent finds himself unable to get to the cinema to review a new release. Instead, a look at a notable release from earlier in the year which got overlooked at the time. Well, okay, maybe not notable, it's a Liam Neeson action movie. But you get the idea.
It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.
Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.
Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.
Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…
Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.
Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.
Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakeable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.
He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.
And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.
It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.