“The Commuter”: Liam Neeson forced to become elderly superman in a stereotyped train wreck thriller

The Commuter” (2018), directed Catelonian Jaume Collet-Serra (story by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi), is a slick B-movie thriller that lets an aging Liam Neeson, as former cop now turned insurance executive Michael MacCauley, play almost comics-style superhero in a sabotaged and runaway train scenario we’ve seen played out many times.

I’ve summarized a lot of them in a review of “The Last Passenger” (think “Unstoppable”, “Runaway Train”, “Silver Streak”, “Source Code”) and even Hitchcock’s 1951 classic “Strangers on a Train”.  And there is always “Murder on the Orient Express”.  And think of other thrillers like “Transsiberian”, or even “Snowpiercer”.

The film opens with some scenes of family routines at a family home in the far northern suburbs above Westchester County on successive August mornings. MacCauley has a teen son whom he must put thru college and the family has two mortgages on its house, legacy of the 2008 financial crash.

Then Mike has a really bad day in the City, and as the film progresses we suspect someone has done a masterful job of setting him up. He gets laid off from his job, and consoled about his severance. In a bar, he meets his former police colleague, Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson). He boards the commuter train on the Metro North home, and then the coincidences really pile up.

Quickly a mysterious Hitchcock-character woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits down next to him and aggressively starts a conversation, asking what kind of person he is.  She offers him $100,000 if he can find a particular witness on the train, but warns him that he is making a deal with Mephistopheles. He can signal acceptance by finding the first $25,000 in a train restroom.

He does so, and soon is warned by a street urchin that he is being watched.  And soon the bodies start piling up and clues mounting of some kind of Mafia conspiracy. But why did they go so far to just target him, and, of course, his family?  Even his firing is part of the setup, and there seems to have been some sort of problem when he was a cop, and it wasn’t racial profiling.

The film builds up to the inevitable train wreck, but not until after some under-carriage heroics (and I thought about “The Great Locomotive Chase” even).  Patrick Wilson’s character does some of the hostage negotiation.   For me personally, without my own family, this is potentially a grave issue if I ver get caught up in something like this (reference).

I don’t recall that the Metro-North makes so many stops in Manhattan or Bronx. I last used it in 2014 (picture above).

The film is a 2018 release, not part of the Oscar rush.

Legacy reviews of “The Last Passenger“; “Strangers on a Train“.

Name: “The Commuter”
Director, writer:  Jaume Collet-Serra
Released:  2018
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/13, fair crowd
Length:  104
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Studio Canal
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, January 13, 2018 at 11 PM EST)

“Murder on the Orient Express” remake: Why are all these specific diverse characters on the same train?

A couple Sundays after president Clinton took office in 1993 (as the debate over gays in the military heated up) I drove 30 miles East to Annapolis to attend a regular church service at the Naval Academy. The pastor was a female (who at the time was by definition supposed to be straight) and her sermon had an interesting title: “Come and see.  Why are you here?”

The second question was one that Chris Hansen would pose to hapless visitors caught in his TV sting about a decade later (“To Catch a Predator”).

But the star and rich-people assemblage in the remake of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” posed the same kind of question.  Why were they on this particular train?  How probable is it, really, that every single passenger could be a reasonable suspect (or “person of interest”, at least) and possibly wind up complicit in the murder of an organized crime figure Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), after the train is stalled by an avalanche in the Carpathian mountains, or maybe it is the Alps.  (The word “orient” seems overused).  All this is in 1934, at the end of the Great Depression, before a lot of people see the Winds of War.

Kenneth Branagh, so proud of his work on Shakespeare in the past (along with the Mahler-ish score by Patrick Doyle) plays himself, so to speak, as the self-indulgent detective Hercule Poirot, who opens the movie obsessed with the symmetry of two boiled eggs at a continental breakfast. He politely refuses Ratchett’s job offer, and then that evening, after the train is derailed and stopped, we actually see a clown (Stephen King style, out of everybody’s sight line) racing away from Ratchett’s cabin.

There are better films set on trains.  First of all, how about Hitchcock’s own “Strangers on a Train” (1951).  I’ve seen Trans-Siberian, The Cassandra Crossing (1977, where a plague has to be contained on a train), Silver Streak, The Great Locomotive Chase (Disney, 1955), and, particularly, Snowpiercer (which was very political).

I remember one train ride a little like one of these movies. In the spring of 1999, I took a night train East from Berlin to Krakow, to visit Auschwitz the next day.  My novel “Angel’s Brother” starts with a meeting of two young men at the site, who had seen each other on the train, and wonder why they are both there.

I saw the 1974 film by Sidney Lumet shortly after I had moved into New York City.

Vinkovci, Croatia station (in the book), wiki.

Name:  “Murder on the Orient Express”
Director, writer:  Kenneth Branagh
Released:  2017/11/10
Format:  2.35:1   some backstories are in black and white
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, afternoon 2017/11/10, good crowd
Length:  115
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  Fox

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 at 10:30 PM EST)