Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has carved out a nice niche for himself as a purveyor of elegantly-crafted schlock. Although he started in horror, Collet-Serra has found a groove with highly efficient, extremely effective thrillers. His 2016 feature "The Shallows" became a cultural phenomenon with the simplest of premises: Blake Lively vs. shark.
In his latest effort "The Commuter," he teams up for the fourth time with his muse, Liam Neeson, for a pop noir set aboard a commuter train: "Conspiracy on the 6:25 to Cold Spring."
Michael (Neeson) is a middle-class family man, his happy, suburban life detailed in a brilliant opening montage of mornings at home and on the way to work, on the train he's taken for 10 years into Manhattan to sell life insurance. On this particular day, Michael is unceremoniously fired, five years from retirement, no severance, with his mortgage due and his kid imminently departing for a pricey private college.
He's two beers deep on the train when a strange woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him. Purporting to be a behavioral scientist, she puts forth a hypothetical question that turns out to be all too real. Would you find and do something to another passenger on this train for $100,000? Of course, it's much more complicated than that, but as soon as Michael gets a whiff of the cash, he's already in too deep with a shadowy, anonymous, murderous mob. He's obligated to search for a passenger going by "Prynne."
Trains have always made great settings for thrillers — going back as far as 1896, when "Arrival of a Train" thrilled and terrified audiences. Collet-Serra makes good use of the limitations, opportunities and unique situations of this particular train, carrying friends, strangers and enemies alike. The jocular characters are reminiscent of the everyday folk that gave "Speed" so much of its charm.
It's fun to imagine Collet-Serra hopping a Metro-North train from Grand Central and falling in love with the details of its specific and contained culture. Collet-Serra's rich depiction of train life is a sensory plunge into the hustling chaos that is exacting in its precision. He and cinematographer Paul Cameron utilize visceral hand-held camerawork alongside dizzyingly elaborate zooms between punched passenger tickets.
The bold style breathes life into the rather generic script by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, which is a serviceable mystery with some tepid social commentary about big banks and bad systems stomping on the little guy.
In the current state of Neeson's career, he's a man with a very specific set of skills. And here, he's an ex-cop, trained to observe tics of human behavior and assess threats. As the mystery deepens, his goals evolve, not content with just finishing his task but finishing the entire group that put him in this sorry mess. It's at this point when the story, well, derails.
The twisty tale keeps pointing toward "a conspiracy" behind the motive for Michael's increasingly harrowing task, but it never explains what the conspiracy is, so when anyone is revealed to have been a part of said conspiracy, it falls flat. All of the elements are there for stylish and suspenseful flick, but the suspense seems to have been forgotten. Ultimately, "The Commuter" gets the job done, but it won't get hearts racing.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Florence Pugh
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language.