Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson) used to be a cop in New York City, but gave up that life for something more stable and quiet, he took the post of insurance broker in a top firm and was quite happy to settle into the daily grind, getting up every day at the same time, eating the same breakfast, having the same conversation with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), and more or less going through the same routine at work. All this includes his commute, where he sees the same passengers every day, but today will be different. He gets into work and is called into the boss's office, then served the bad news: he's been sacked. He had five years till retirement...
All the commuters are a weary bunch at the beginning of this thriller, as if to wink at the audience and connivingly say "They look like they should have some excitement in their lives!" Which is what they were in for, as on his way back home to humiliatingly tell his wife and son that he has not only lost his job, but now he can't afford to pay for their lives anymore, Michael is approached by an attractive middle-aged woman (Vera Farmiga) who seems to know a lot about him. He is intrigued, particularly when she offers him the amount of money he needs to be financially secure, stashed away in the carriage toilet, but naturally this cash does not come for free, and a small favour is now owed.
All Michael has to do is identify a passenger who is disembarking right at the end of the line, it's someone who doesn't look quite as if they belong, and as he has been on this train with the same faces for ten years back and forth every day, this should not be too difficult for him to achieve. Who are they kidding? This is a high concept thriller patterned after director Jaume Collet-Serra and his star Neeson's earlier aeroplane-based suspense effort Non-Stop, so of course there will be complications, chief among them being these mysterious agents wish Michael to actually kill the person he is seeking on their behalf. Why do this? Because it's an action flick, so kidnapping is involved.
That's correct, the missis and the boy have been captured, not unlike a certain other Neeson movie that revitalised his career and that of a collection of ageing movie stars, but this time he may be an ex-officer of the law, yet the insurance game has seen him very much revert to the more sedate life of an office worker. Oh, who are we kidding? There may be fight scenes where our protagonist is looking outmatched, but he was still a superman who was going to save the day before the end credits rolled. To say too much would be to spoil, well, they were not exactly huge twists and shocks, but they were well-managed by the screenplay to be sufficiently well-hidden as the events played out, though perhaps the identity of the person the baddies were after was more obvious than they reckoned.
Nevertheless, there was a surprising degree of fun to be had here, it was the sort of movie that would be dismissed by many, but a fair portion of the audience would be secretly thinking they really enjoyed it, not because it was a serious, white knuckle ride, but because it was absolutely preposterous. Collet-Serra was evidently courting comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and not merely thanks to the locomotive setting, as the legendary British director continued to cast a long shadow over the thriller genre, but actually what The Commuter was more like was something akin to the seventies Hitchcock copies, specifically Silver Streak with Gene Wilder, Neeson a curious substitute for the comic actor, but not a bad fit. He did not, alas, get a Richard Pryor as a co-star, but there were laughs here nonetheless, albeit unintentional for the most part, with a lot of non-American cast members putting on American accents (this was a UK co-production) and a sense of devil may care amusement throughout, cheeky Spartacus rip-off and all. Go on, give it a go, you might enjoy yourself. Music by Roque Baños.
[There's a making of featurette and a Neeson interview on Studio Canal's pristine Blu-ray.]