Friday, January 12, 2018

The Commuter: Catch the next train

The Commuter (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice quite reasonably suggests that one can’t believe impossible things, the Queen of Hearts insists that “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The queen would have been right at home with this movie.

When Joanna (Vera Farmiga) — a total stranger — sits opposite Michael (Liam Neeson)
and proposes a mysterious "what if?" scenario, he assumes that she's merely passing the
time during their commute. Increasingly unlikely events quickly will demonstrate that
she's completely serious...
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter is a hilariously ludicrous start to the cinematic new year: a thriller that makes absolutely no sense and survives on momentum alone ... until it doesn’t.

The script — assign the blame to Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle — sails right past improbable and far-fetched, and heads straight into preposterous. It demands a suspension of disbelief far beyond the capability of mere mortals.

Theater ushers will have quite a task after each screening, carefully scooping up all the viewer eyeballs that have rolled right out of their sockets.

This storyline probably began with the intriguing notion that regular commuters — despite sharing (in this case) the same New York train, five days a week, 52 weeks a year — really don’t know much about the folks with whom they exchange cheerful greetings twice each day. What secrets might be concealed behind those superficial smiles?

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) finds out one day, when his late-afternoon trip home is interrupted by an enigmatic woman (Vera Farmiga, as Joanna) who sits in the opposite chair and strikes up a conversation. She behaves like a friendly, flirty psychologist, posing a “What would you do for $100,000?” scenario.

Michael indulges her (already unlikely, on a New York City train).

Perhaps, being well read, he recognizes this riff on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” in which a mysterious man gives a poverty-stricken couple a box with a button, promising $200,000 if they push the button, which will kill “someone whom you don’t know.” (It was filmed as an episode of the 1985-86 revival of The Twilight Zone, and then again in 2009, as the feature film The Box.)

Joanna departs at the next station, with an ambiguous comment that suggests her scenario isn’t all that fictitious. Michael, curious, investigates ... and finds a percentage of the cash, hidden right where she promised. At which point, she calls his smart phone, insists that he now has no choice but to comply with her demands ... lest his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son be harmed.

Michael’s task: to find the person on the train who “doesn’t belong,” is carrying a bag, and answers to the name of “Prin.” Before the train reaches the end of the line.

Somehow — impossibly, absurdly — Joanna knows Michael’s every move, and keeps calling with accelerated warnings, when he does something contrary to her script. His understandable reluctance and attempts at rebellion prompt equally absurd levels of retaliation.

The apparent size and scope of this conspiracy defy description. (I think even the Queen of Hearts would have checked out by now.)

And, so, Michael plays the game. And searches for “Prin.”

Complications ensue. Naturally.

For a time, mild suspense is generated by contemplating the identity of this individual. Michael’s recognized regulars are off the list, as they do “belong”: the easygoing and helpful Tony (Andy Nyman); the cynical Walt (Jonathan Banks); and the jovial conductor, Sam (Colin McFarlane).

The unfamiliar faces are more likely: an obnoxious Wall Street broker (Shazad Latif); a burly, taciturn construction worker (Roland Møller); a weary guy with a guitar case (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith); a college girl with a firm grip on her handbag (Florence Pugh); a clearly agitated nurse who keeps texting somebody as her eyes dart hither and yon (Clara Lago); and a shifty, feral guy who seems quite nervous himself (Killian Scott).

Comic relief is supplied by Jimmy (Adam Nagaitis), an assistant conductor with a strong sense of self-preservation. He unleashes a few one-liners that would break the tension, were this film capable of generating any.

Trouble is, the scenario gets more contrived by the minute, until not even Neeson — enjoying a late-career stint as an action hero — can keep a straight face. He frequently seems on the verge of stopping, mid-scene, and shouting, “Oh, come on; this is just stupid!”

And, as daft and outrageous as things have been up to this point, the film really goes off the rails — literally — during the third act. Points to visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, for the sort of stylish, golly-gee-whiz sequence that only exists within “movie physics.”

I almost applauded. But then the narrative lurched back into unlife.

The scripters do deserve credit for acknowledging Neeson’s seniority. Michael repeatedly laments his 60 years of age — Neeson actually is 65 — and definitely endures considerable punishment. He’s not trying to be a 40-something James Bond, except for the fact that no matter how much he gets pummeled, beaten, kicked, smacked, punched or tossed about, he always gets up for more. We all should be so resilient at 60.

Nobody, not even Neeson, turns in a performance that can be considered acting. He just tries gamely to keep up with the plot contrivances, while all others are little more than one-dimensional archetypes. McGovern, in particular, is shamefully wasted.

Neeson and Collet-Serra enjoy working together, having teamed previously on 2011’s Unknown and 2015’s Run All Night, both similarly disposable action thrillers. I actually had hopes that Collet-Serra was maturing above those efforts and his horror-flick roots; he did quite well with 2016’s The Shallows, a genuinely slick and suspenseful one-hander by star Blake Lively.

The Commuter therefore is a lamentable step backwards: a waste of time, talent and — most particularly — viewer patience.

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