Liam Neeson has built his late career around being your dad, or rather, the power fantasy that your dad wishes he were. Almost every film in Neeson’s action career has been focused on a family patriarch, down on his luck but not without his particular sets of skills, protecting his family from a threat to their lives or safety in a bid to prove that even as he sets on in years that he’s still capable of being a beacon of masculine stability for his family unit. It’s an evolution of the save-the-princess model of storytelling, only refitted to aging suburbanite pop culture fans who still want to feel like Han Solo or Clint Eastwood, and it’s a niche that Liam Neeson has found himself very comfortable in. The Commuter is the latest of such pieces of Dad Cinema, and though it has a strikingly dumb story to tell, it achieves its primary goal of being a delightful action romp.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop who just lost his job as an insurance salesman, leaving his family in dire financial straits. While on the ride home on the commuter train, he is approached by a strange woman who proposes a hypothetical: if he could track down one person on the train who doesn’t seem to belong and identify them with a GPS tracking device, would he do so with the promise of a $100,000 reward, regardless of the unknown consequences to the identified party? This scenario quickly proves to not be hypothetical, and Michael is caught up in a search for the unknown person as a manipulating presence monitors him and threatens to harm his family if he doesn’t comply.
Finding the fun in The Commuter largely depends on your ability to ignore glaring plot holes and cope with a plot structured around some fairly obvious red herrings. The organization threatening Michael and his family is only ever identified insofar as they probably spell They with a capital T, and it’s a pretty odd detail for them to be as apparently omniscient as they are yet still require the rogue element of Michael to track down this mysterious person. It’s also pretty obvious who the mystery person ends up being if you’ve ever seen one of these red herring capers before, but at the very least the cast of oddball suspects is entertaining enough in their own right to carry the movie through the necessary steps.
The film comes alive, though, in its moments of action, which occasionally suffer from sloppy editing when tracking some of the more fantastical setpieces, but are overall creative and very well choreographed. One fight scene in particular is framed as a single continuous shot a la Atomic Blonde, and while not as impressive it certainly delivers one of the most memorable weapons that Neeson has ever wielded in a film. You also get to see the 65-year-old actor leap between train cars and badass his way through explosions, which are just the kinds of viscerally thrilling exploits you’d expect from Jaume Collet-Serra, director of The Shallows and Run All Night. In other words, the plotting is simple and contrived, but it mostly serves as a shell in which to frame some over-the-top train-based action beats, so if that’s what you’ve signed up to see, you’re most definitely in luck.
You don’t have to be a dad to enjoy the visceral thrills of a Liam Neeson action movie, but it certainly helps if you suffer from the same American middle class insecurities as The Commuter‘s Michael. The plot mechanics don’t matter nearly so much as the visceral feelings of strength and relevance that a film like this imbues, and sometimes it’s nice just to get caught up in a stupid fantasy. Take your dad to the movies and let him stew over how he has to wait to add this movie to his ever-growing collection of Neeson vehicle DVDs. Turn off your brains, and you’ll both have a pretty good time.