The Commuter review – Liam Neeson turns Mr Incredible for white-knuckle train ride

Speeding along familiar action-thriller tracks, the actor reaches peak Neeson as a former cop forced to rescue his abducted family while on his daily commute

There’s no stopping this thoroughly efficient train-bound action thriller, which pulls out of New York’s Grand Central at a sedate pace and steadily accelerates through the suburbs, almost in real time, until 90 minutes later we’re careering out of control in a reckless race against time. It’s another white-knuckle ride from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra – something of a master of high-concept, ticking-clock B-movies – and his regular leading man, Liam Neeson, who is now as dependable as a Swiss watch in this type of senior action-hero role.

Liam Neeson in The Commuter.
Liam Neeson in The Commuter. Photograph: Jay Maidment/AP

Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, insurance broker and family man (although they might as well just name his character Liam Neeson). He’s caught the same Hudson line commuter train for 10 years; except this time Vera Farmiga elegantly plonks herself into the seat opposite and makes Neeson an offer he could refuse but doesn’t: find one person on the train based on their destination and nickname, plant a tracking device on their bag, and she’ll give him $100,000. He’s just lost his job, so why not? As an added incentive, Farmiga tells him they’ll kill his wife and son if he refuses or fails.

No sooner is Neeson pitched into this predicament than the questions mount up. Who are “they”? Why are they doing this? How can he possibly locate this mystery person? Why don’t they simply tell him who it is? And first and foremost, haven’t they seen the Taken movies? Don’t they know that if there’s one person whose family you don’t abduct in order to coerce him into being your random fall guy, it’s Liam Neeson?

But no time for details. Neeson’s tormentors quickly demonstrate they aren’t kidding, the pace starts picking up, and the race against time is on. It helps that Neeson is a former cop, and thus well equipped for the challenge. It also helps that he knows some regulars on the train, and we get to know plenty more passengers – or suspects. Who could it be? His buddy Jonathan Banks? The brash Wall Street type? Florence “Lady Macbeth” Pugh? The cocky conductor? The shifty guy with the snake tattoo? The Latina nurse?

As we accelerate from Hitchcock territory into the Die Hard zone, there’s a perverse “how’s he going to get out of this?” pleasure to proceedings, with a few switchbacks and red herrings to keep us guessing. Despite the confined location, there’s rarely a dull moment visually, either. Collet-Serra is constantly finding new places to put the camera, to the extent that by the end we’re familiar with every part of the train, from the vent in the toilet to the carriage couplings beneath the floor. The camera even flies through the punched hole of a train ticket in one gratifying shot.

The Commuter trailer video

But what keeps The Commuter on the rails is Neeson himself. He’s in amazing form for a 65-year-old (his character is only 60), and in terms of actorly presence, he’s still got it. His craggy face is now as monumental as Mount Rushmore, his voice is a resonant velvety growl, and his body can still give and take one hell of a pounding. What’s more, he can leap crashing train carriages in a single bound. He’s like a live-action version of Pixar’s Mr Incredible.

On the downside, The Commuter is in such a hurry to reach its destination without delay, there’s no time to enjoy the view. It’s so stripped down, the characters are mostly ciphers and there’s little in the way of leavening humour or unexpected detours. Perhaps you can’t ask too much from a modest, mid-range crowd-pleaser like this, but the experience ends up something like a commuter service itself: you know where it’s going and it gets you there perfectly well, but in a few years’ time you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from dozens of similar journeys.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cold Pursuit review – Liam Neeson revenge thriller leaves a bad taste
The actor’s real-life revelation intensifies the discomfort of this violent drama about a snowplough driver hunting his son’s murderer

Peter Bradshaw

21, Feb, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Liam Neeson to star in suspense thriller The Commuter
The Northern Irish actor will play a businessman who becomes embroiled in a criminal conspiracy on his journey home

Ben Child

22, Sep, 2015 @12:12 PM

Article image
Honest Thief review - Liam Neeson does Taken once more with feeling
Over a decade on from launching his action-movie persona, Neeson once again finds himself on the rampage, this time to save a nice little love story

Ellen E Jones

22, Oct, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Run All Night – Liam Neeson ups his tough-guy game
A succession of car chases and bar room brawls set the pulse racing in this New York-set thriller – and it whups the Taken sequels

Mike McCahill

12, Mar, 2015 @9:45 PM

Article image
Taken 2 – review

The tables are turned and this time Liam Neeson's daughter has to rescue him in this tired sequel, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

04, Oct, 2012 @9:01 PM

Article image
Non-Stop review – 'plenty of air miles for enjoyability' | Peter Bradshaw
Is the airplane becoming the modern equivalent of the snowed-in country house? Apparently so, writes Peter Bradshaw, as Liam Neeson manages a fuselage full of trouble in this enjoyable silly thriller

Peter Bradshaw

27, Feb, 2014 @2:59 PM

Article image
The Ice Road review – Liam Neeson slums through Netflix B-movie
The prolific action star brings his gruff cut-and-paste persona to yet another anonymous thriller, this time about a perilous rescue mission

Benjamin Lee

25, Jun, 2021 @8:19 PM

Article image
A Walk Among the Tombstones review – Neeson channels Charles Bronson
Liam Neeson lends a veneer of class to this tacky adaptation of a Lawrence Block crime novel, writes Xan Brooks

Xan Brooks

18, Sep, 2014 @8:45 PM

Article image
A Monster Calls review – Liam Neeson stars in sweet, sad fantasy
Neeson voices a monster who helps a bullied boy cope with his mother’s terminal illness in a dramatic, affecting tale

Peter Bradshaw

29, Dec, 2016 @9:00 PM

Article image
Ordinary Love review – Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in potent weepie
Strong, sensitive performances assist a melancholic drama about a couple dealing with the fallout from a cancer diagnosis

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

13, Sep, 2019 @7:25 PM