**/**** Image A Sound A Extras D+
starring Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill
screenplay by Byron Willinger & Philip De Blasi and Ryan Engle
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I love a good train movie. Most of them since the publication of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express have combined elements of the drawing-room mystery with comedy, and I guess my problem with The Commuter is that it's more perplexing and silly than intriguing and witty. In addition, by taking place aboard a commuter train, it clarifies why long-distance trains are the genre's preferred setting, because not only do the latter provide, with their dining cars and their sleeping compartments, a richer visual backdrop, but they also don't have to keep stopping every few minutes to let people out, imposing commercial breaks on the narrative. In short, long-distance trains are cinema, commuter trains are TV. That's probably a derogatory and even borderline-meaningless distinction now, yet The Commuter is ephemeral in a way that B-movies often aren't but episodic television of the franchised-to-death sort that keeps networks afloat these days typically is. I have this abstract wish that it was "better," mainly because this is Liam Neeson's purported departure from the action genre, the moribund mainstream division of which he single-handedly revived. He deserves a less anticlimactic send-off.
The Commuter is also Neeson's fourth film with his personal Michael Winner, cult director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has in each of his collaborations with the star given him some kind of Achilles heel that's functioned as a metaphor for Neeson's own self-consciousness about playing action hero in his 60s. Here, the filmmakers stop beating around the bush and call Neeson old, although they still shave a few years off his actual age in making him 60 on the dot. Insomuch as the film is a deliberate swan song, it's about a guy who took a paycheck gig for ten years--tellingly, Taken opened three weeks shy of a decade before The Commuter--and is wistful for the challenges of the life he left behind. But the allegory doesn't really align with the particulars of Neeson's career trajectory, since Neeson's Michael MacCauley retired from the police force to become an insurance salesman. That's the opposite of bidding goodbye to the Kinseys and Love Actuallys to punch eurotrash for Luc Besson, and the picture's How Liam Got His Groove Back messaging feels incongruous. The bizarre wish-fulfilment ending deflects, too, from the issue that lands MacCauley in a Hitchcock quagmire in the first place, i.e., his ongoing struggle to keep up appearances on a middle-class salary. I had so many questions when The Commuter ended, first among them, Is he solvent yet?.
Force of habit leads MacCauley to board his usual train home after he's laid off from his job (no severance pay, but lucky for him on this action-packed day, he gets to stay on the company health-care plan). A comely stranger (Vera Farmiga, of Collet-Serra's Orphan) claiming to be an expert in human behaviour approaches him with a hypothetical: For twenty-five thousand dollars up front and one-hundred in total, would he be willing to sleuth out a passenger travelling under the assumed name of "Prynne" and plant a GPS tracker on his or her baggage before the train reaches the end of the line? The lady vanishes--get it?--but MacCauley realizes she wasn't bluffing when he finds a bag of money stowed in the bathroom vent. He pockets it--maybe somewhat reflexively, maybe not, though he does immediately start searching for Prynne. A soupçon of moral ambiguity is what differentiates Collet-Serra's Neeson films from the Taken trilogy and others in the actor's renaissance. In their first collaboration, Unknown, Neeson plays an assassin who gains a conscience after losing his memory. (It is to Regarding Henry what The Commuter is to Murder on the Orient Express.) Collet-Serra's Run All Night cast Neeson as a full-blown antihero, a pickled mob enforcer who leaves a trail of dead bodies protecting his estranged son. And The Commuter presents an ex-NYPD detective who enters into an assassination game with eyes wide shut.
MacCauley seems shocked when a person he misidentifies as Prynne eats a bullet. Is it wilful ignorance or is it idiocy? Unfortunately, the film equivocates too much on MacCauley's behalf, first by returning his $25K to the winds, then by raising the stakes with the bitch move of putting his family in jeopardy, then by reintroducing MacCauley's old partner (Patrick Wilson) to divide the portraiture of cops into definitive good and bad halves. The convoluted plot is so harebrained I mistrust a deeper reading of MacCauley's motives--or really anything in The Commuter--besides: nuance has been pounded out of this screenplay like a boxer's memories. A cabal of bad guys have gambled their entire mission on a stranger's willingness to go along with them and investigative skills he hasn't put to use in ages. They've also planted a hit man on board to shadow MacCauley; for a hundred grand, couldn't they have found one person with the talent to kill Prynne and locate him/her in the first place? Here's a hint: look for the person reading The Scarlet Letter. (Here's a hint to Prynne, who of course turns out to be a whistle-blower about to go into witness protection: don't read The Scarlet Letter in public.) It's all such a swatting-flies-with-Buicks operation, and there's a particularly maddening moment where the villains have activated their contingency plan to take out the whole train and MacCauley says, "Cover the windows! We don't know who's out there, who's watching! They tried to kill us all." What possible difference could that make if the target is no longer just one of them?
None of this would bother me, a card-carrying fan of Ninja III: The Domination, if the dopey script weren't compounded by the movie's waste of human resources, especially its women but also the great Jonathan Banks. Despite her character's punk styling, you wouldn't know that Florence Pugh is a force of nature from how trivially she's used here, while Elizabeth McGovern, as Neeson's inconvenient wife, almost seems to be getting chastised for playing an actress still thriving in middle-age in Once Upon a Time in America. If I wish that Neeson had an opportunity to show more gravitas in the throes of his sweaty unravelling, I recognize this is partly my disappointment that we didn't get his Unforgiven before he put this side of himself out to pasture. (In retrospect, The Grey might have prematurely filled that role.) Thank goodness for a throwdown between MacCauley and the aforementioned hit-man, which, even with the film's PG-13 rating, registers as one of Neeson's finest fight scenes: a one-take wonder that pits two bodies against each other and the centrifugal force of the train. Cleverly, MacCauley wields a guitar, his opponent an unlikely fire axe--axe vs. axe, in other words. Though the CG seams are obvious, in the herky-jerky rhythm of its camerawork and choreography this set-piece takes on the strange, beguiling affect of a puppet show. (Ergo, some potential facial-replacement on the actors only helps, making them look bewitched.) Perhaps inspired by the understated time-hopping of Synecdoche, New York's prologue, the opening sequence is pretty bravura, too, as it compresses a year's worth of MacCauley's daily commutes into a montage that underscores the repetition and monotony of a 9-to-5 existence. It augurs a more provocative film about extricating oneself from these vicious little cycles--like, say, Synecdoche, New York.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate brings The Commuter to 4K Ultra HD disc in a dazzling 2.39:1, 2160p transfer sourced from a bona fide 4K D.I. (although the native resolution of the Alexa Mini, DP Paul Cameron's camera of choice on the production, tops out at 3.4K). There is a substantial difference between this presentation and the 1080p alternative found on the bonus Blu-ray platter, which has a comparatively dim appearance and is missing the texture a faux grain structure brings to the film in 4K. The UHD image is dark yet distinct, and close-ups of Neeson resonate with increased, age-betraying detail. While the SDR colour grade doesn't much change in HDR, HDR electrifies the highlights, uncannily conveying the heat of the sunlight glinting off every shiny surface of the train as afternoon passes into twilight. Overhead fluorescents, friction sparks, and searchlights become palpably bright as well; The Commuter comes to life to the extent that it can in 4K.
Both discs feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that distils to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD for those without the hardware, like moi. It still sounds plenty ferocious--the centrepiece derailment is a four-cornered assault of screaming metal, broken glass, and walloping bass that gave me agita--and generates a lot of atmosphere, all while keeping dialogue and Roque Baños's score in balance against the mayhem. Blame the mixer, not the mix, for some conspicuous ADR in the early going. In a format first, at least for me, there are extras on the 4K disc, the same ones that grace the BD. "End of the Line" (9 mins., 1080p) is EPK-style advertainment that interviews the principals. Neeson talks about his shorthand with Collet-Serra and equates the director with Spielberg, but the biggest surprise is how prominently Farmiga is featured for having so small a role in the film. The companion piece "Off the Rails" (4 mins., 1080p) focuses on the complexities and realities of staging a movie aboard a moving train in a digital world. It piqued my curiosity enough that I would gladly swap the running times of these featurettes. For what it's worth, only the Blu-ray cues up with pre-menu trailers (for American Assassin and Our Kind of Traitor). The concurrent Canadian release from VVS appears to be identical in its configuration, save that it drops the bonus digital copy and has superior cover art.