Hitchcock had Cary Grant. Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune. Now, in the modern era, Jaume Collet-Serra has Liam Neeson. The duo have worked together on four films to date: Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and now TheCommuter. This most recent collaboration features all the familar trademarks: Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a regular, everyday insurance salesman with a complicated past and a fractious family situation, who suddenly finds himself thrust into a high octane, race-against-the-clock scenario complete with double crosses, mysterious messages and plenty of dead bodies.
This time around Neeson finds himself on a train. Beyond that, The Commuter runs disappointingly close to the far superior Non-Stop. Just as it was on that terror-threatened plane, Neeson is again tasked with identifying an important passenger about whom he knows nothing. Non-compliance will result in the sudden and violent deaths of those around him. There's an early appearance by a femme fatale (here, the wildly underused Vera Farmiga), a claustrophobic fight scene and, of course, a comically over-the-top climax. But while Non-Stop managed to keep things relatively fresh, The Commuter just feels tired and increasingly incoherent.
Collet-Serra's films are often described as modern day B-movies. Whether that's meant as an insult depends on the critic – but either way, it's hard to argue that they don't fit the label. His films are wild rides that focus more on adrenalin than story; Hitchcockian pastiches that thoroughly entertain but don't always hold up under scrutiny. His best film by far is also his most reserved: The Shallows, starring Blake Lively, was a deliciously tense woman-vs-shark thriller that proved to be one of the most enjoyable (and surprising) hits of last year.
By comparison, while the filmmaker's collaborations with Neeson have unquestionably borne excellent fruit, their limitations must also be acknowledged. Neeson is a terrific actor with an extraordinary body of work behind him, yet that same gravitas works against him when playing the everyday Joe roles Collet-Serra continues to give him. He's too intense to pull off folksy charm, whilst workmanlike barroom banter ("another day, another dollar") sounds ridiculous coming out of his mouth. The truth is, while Taken remains something of a gold standard in the annals of contemporary action flicks, attempts to replicate it with the same leading man have largely fallen short. The Commuter offers fine entertainment for a switched off brain, but little more.