And even though it all does sound just a little bit too similar to the seriously superior Source Code (even sharing some of the same cast), there is a bit more to this one than meets the eye. Neeson’s recently-fired corporate guy is thrust into what he thinks is a very odd psychological game by Vera Farmiga’s mysterious, fancy-shoed Joanna. Given a shot at a large amount of money (which, as we are deftly told by the heavy-handed intro, he very much needs), the rules are simple: he just has to find the one person on the train who “doesn’t belong”. Something which both he, and we, initially assume should be rather easy, since he’s been riding said train day-in, day-out for the past 10 years (and don’t we know it). But naturally, nothing is at it seems, and the deeper into things Neeson gets, the more confusing everything turns out to be. And not just for the characters involved either.
Which is odd, because The Commuter starts very confidently. Collet-Serra and co. assemble a great cast (a fiery mix of newbie Brits Florence Pugh and Shazad Latif, and Hollywood regulars Patrick Wilson and Sam Neil), Neeson’s heartbreaking as ever in his early development drama, and the basic bare-bones set-up certainly gives off a decent enough Hitchcock vibe. But as the train finally starts to build up speed, all but one of its wheels just seem to come flying off.
Neeson’s troubled softie suddenly ditches the nice-guy salesman routine and gets lost in his ex-cop roots, roughing up passengers and shouting obscenities down the phone. The clever playing field of the train, with its many varied ticks and compartments, very quickly gets reduced down to just one, and the main story drive itself – the stupid amounts of money on offer – quite literally just gets brazenly tossed out the window. The Commuter’s script ends up locked in this weird cycle of completely rewriting its entire plot every 20 or so pages, so instead of the simple and effective thriller promised, we end up with some bizarre, gargled mish-mash of different train-related genres.
What starts as a cat-and-mouse type mystery, morphs into an incredibly overbearing conspiracy thriller (the details of which still aren’t abundantly clear), before cycling through disaster flick, hostage drama and eventually, Die Hard-esque retribution tale; the last few making no sense at all in the context of what we started with. Neeson’s everyman hero gets thrown around so much and changes tact so many times throughout, his motivations just get totally buried. All of the early development gets scribbled over and the writers seem so eager to second-guess the audience, they keep second-guessing themselves by accident too. He’s a nobody, now he’s a hero cop, but he’s doing bad things, because he needs money, but “they” also have his family, or do they? Who are “they”? It’s a mess.
The action itself is fine, and the cast do what they can with the material on hand, even if a hefty chunk of the middle is just Neeson running around demanding to see people’s tickets, like some sort of drunk, bedraggled conductor from Hell. Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks is a stand-out, and Farmiga is wonderfully menacing for the split-second she’s on screen, but the bigger problem here is that Collet-Serra and his team don’t stick with anything for long enough. There’s barely a single scrap of consistency in the whole film, and in its constant attempts to be unpredictable and laden with twists, The Commuter ends up derailing its own narrative, making virtually no sense at all.