What Jaume Collet-Serra Got Right With 'The Commuter'
Warning: This article may contain spoilers for the film 'The Commuter'.
The Commuter is an interesting turn for the great Liam Neeson. I remember growing up with him as Sam Raimi’s attempt at The Shadow with Dark Man, then as the enigmatic Oskar Schindler for Speilberg’s Schindler’s List. By the end of the nineties he became the Jedi Master to find the young boy who would become the unforgettable cinema villain Darth Vader, and eventually he was the wise mentor to Christian Bale in Batman Begins. Ever since, Liam Neeson has been quite the action star, especially for Jaume Collet-Serra’s films. From a surface level it is hard not to compare The Commuter to Collet-Serra’s other action film starring Neeson, Non-Stop. Both films have Neeson as the star aboard a moving vehicle and whose erratic behavior begins to worry the people he is trying to protect, as tracks down the threat.
Personally, I enjoyed Non-Stop; the ending came as a bit of a twist and awkward and it felt like the film was trying to be some kind of commentary on the post-9/11 world. It had an interesting aim, but did not quite hit its mark. The Commuter, however, does two things better than Non-Stop.
The first is character, as unorthodox as it is at first. In Non-Stop, Neeson was an air marshal (in this film, and numerous others, we are accustomed to Liam Neeson as an action star with some kind of resume in each film—ninja, secret agent, etc.). But in The Commuter, Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, who is hardly a wise mentor or big, bad ass-kicker. Instead he is a simple middle-class American, father, and husband who has to take the train to work as an insurance salesman. Glamorous, right? It's not—he is simply trying to make a living to support his family. In the beginning it is rather jarring, and I cannot remember the last time I saw such a side of him in any other film. At one point, we do find out MacCauley was a cop roughly ten years ago. The action scenes show that he is aged and has been out of the force long enough to not land goons in just a few hits.
The next thing that The Commuter does much better than Non-Stop is in the overall theme and premise of the film. MacCauley loses his job with just some small severance package offered to him, and he is then offered $25,000 in cash to locate someone on his train who does not belong. The man has two mortgages, a wife, and son he intends to send to college. He even speaks of his earlier debt troubles and of the still relevant 2008 Great Recession which wiped him out. His job loss is just another item in a long list of financial woes. As the audience, we can probably identify with this premise and connect with his middle class status.
I think the film is something of a revenge fantasy for the middle class. Take the character’s background, the inclusion of a passenger from Goldman Sach’s, and the conclusion of the film. The large public and private institutions of America simply cannot be trusted, and on top of this we have a character simply referred to as “they". I feel that “they” is more or less the secret, industrialist cabal that conspiracy theorists speak of in American politics. Most of the time it sounds like bunk, but we cannot help but feel there is merit to this craziness sometimes, as the middle class of America is hardly looking for a hand-out or a trophy. They are simply look for a morally decent, lawful, and possible way to live life. They are not asking for millions, but for just enough. When the offer is made to them to finally get what they want or need, they are not willing to forgo their values either. It is what makes this one of the more interesting roles for Liam Neeson in quite a while. It is not his fighting techniques or cool weapons that draw us to him. Instead, it his overall moral fiber and values that keeps him going. He is an aging man finding it difficult to survive in an America with an ever-increasing inequality of wealth. He would love nothing but to be free of this dilemma, but it does not keep him down from still doing the right and noble thing.