Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has carved out a niche as a purveyor of elegantly crafted schlock. Although he started in horror, Collet-Serra has found a groove with highly efficient, extremely effective thrillers.
His latest effort, "The Commuter," is not his best work. He teams up for the fourth time with Liam Neeson (joining "Unknown," "Run All Night" and "Non-Stop") for a pop noir set aboard a commuter train. The movie gets the job, but it won't get hearts racing.
Michael (Neeson) has a happy, suburban life that is detailed in an opening montage of mornings on the train he's taken for 10 years into the city to sell life insurance. On this particular day, Michael is unceremoniously fired, five years from retirement, his mortgage due and his kid imminently departing for a pricey private college.
Settling down in the bar car for his ride home, he's two beers into the trip when a strange woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him. Purporting to be a behavioral scientist, she puts forth a hypothetical question that turns out to be all too real: Would he track down and do something to another passenger on this train for $100,000? Of course, it's much more complicated than that, but as soon as Michael gets a whiff of the cash, he's in too deep with a shadowy, anonymous, murderous mob. He's obligated to search for a passenger going by "Prynne."
Trains always have made great settings for thrillers. Collet-Serra makes good use of the limitations, opportunities and unique situations of this particular train, carrying friends, strangers and enemies alike. The jocular characters are reminiscent of the everyday folks who gave "Speed" so much of its charm.
Collet-Serra's rich depiction of train life is a sensory plunge into the hustling chaos that is exacting in its precision. He and cinematographer Paul Cameron ("Deja Vu") utilize visceral hand-held camerawork alongside dizzyingly elaborate zooms between punched passenger tickets.
The bold style breathes life into the rather generic script by first-timers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi and Collet-Serra regular Ryan Engle, which is a serviceable mystery with some tepid social commentary about big banks and bad systems stomping on the little guy.
As the mystery deepens, Michael's goals evolve. Not content with just finishing his task, he becomes determined to put an end to the entire group that got him in this sorry mess. It's at this point when the story, well, derails.
The twisty tale keeps pointing toward "a conspiracy," but it never explains what the conspiracy is, so when anyone is revealed to have been a part of said conspiracy, it falls flat. All the elements are there for a stylish and suspenseful flick, but the suspense seems to have been forgotten.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for intense action/violence and language.