Scalding Hot Takes: The Commuter (2018)

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Scalding Hot Takes, my column on all the hot new movies that the kids are talking about on the Myspace and the Netflix with the Youtube was created for a very specific purpose: to trick me into seeing new movies in theaters following the curious, not entirely pleasurable experience of working professionally as a film critic for eighteen years, then becoming completely unemployable in the field. 

The idea was to give me and Clint more to talk about on the podcast and for us to talk about movies that were both culturally significant and, occasionally, even good. I’m talking about movies like Thor: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi. But I’ve also watching culturally significant garbage like Justice League and Bright. 

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In that respect, The Commuter represents a bold new first for Scalding Hot Takes. For the first time, and possibly the last time, I am covering a new movie not because it’s culturally significant and/or good but rather so that I would have something to write about. And talk about. Because oh sweet blessed Lord is The Commuter not a film of significance. It is not a film of distinction. It is not a film that matters. It is disposable product, nothing more, nothing less. 

It is a film I finished watching about two hours ago that I am furiously writing about now to take advantage of the narrow window between when I saw the late-period Liam Neeson vehicle and the moment, perhaps mere hours from now, when it will disappear from my memory entirely. In fact I'm a little worried that when Clint asks me about The Commuter on Monday, when we record Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast, my response will be a sincere, "Yeah, I got nothing. I remember a train, maybe? And Liam Neeson talking into a phone a lot and getting fired from selling life insurance?"

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Heck, I did not even know The Commuter existed until my podcasting partner Clint Worthington suggested that we cover it, both because there was nothing genuinely important coming out, but also because it all too perfectly embodies the snowy, vacant wilderness that is the January theatrical release schedule. January for new theatrical releases is a land of wind and ghosts. It's a no man’s land between the Oscar and Christmas rush of December and the glorious box-office extravaganza of Summer, when studios have nothing better to offer audiences than yet another interchangeable thriller where Liam Neeson plays a senior citizen called upon to save his family under ever so slightly implausible circumstances. 

I somehow managed to miss most of the whole “Liam Neeson as Grandpa Action” craze, though I did suffer through The A-Team and probably a few others I've forgotten about. More like the C team, am I right? This reader knows what I’m talking about. This reader definitely knows what I’m talking about. 

In The Commuter, Liam Neeson plays Michael McCauley, who I must say is astonishingly agile and powerful for a sixty year old man introduced losing his job as an insurance salesman. Now I like Liam Neeson. I think, for example, that he is way too good and successful for schlock like this, but casting him as an insurance salesman forces you to think about a guy who looks and acts and talks like a 60 year old Liam Neeson selling life insurance, and the idea of Neeson angrily, frustratingly (the only way he does things in movies like this) making small talk with the Wilkersons about how little Janie Sue is doing at college in an attempt to sell them insurance is funnier to me than the entirety of most comedies. 

 Liam in peak action dad form, one hand on the gun, the other on a cell phone.

Liam in peak action dad form, one hand on the gun, the other on a cell phone.

Maybe it's just because I've only seen Neeson in super-heavy dramas, playing dour, important characters, or action movies where his wildly expressive brow is perpetually furrowed with concern for the fate of his daughter or wife, but it's hard to imagine Neeson angrily, tensely asking newlyweds if they've been thinking about buying term life insurance, or at least doing so in a way that doesn't make his prospective buyers think that, for some reason they can't quite articulate, Neeson's family will be killed execution-style unless he's able to achieve his objectives. 

Then again, The Commuter is just following Robert McKee's famous decree to always introduce your action-thriller hero getting fired from his job selling life insurance. It worked in Dirty Harry. It worked in To Live and Die In L.A and it works here.

Ah, but there is a reason this sixty year old unemployed insurance salesman has Jason Bourne-level reflexes and killing powers beyond those of the usual AARP member: he’s a former police officer. Will that come into play in this action movie? I hope you’re sitting down, and holding onto your butts and your monocles because it does! He sells zero insurance, but he does cop-type stuff pretty much the entire film. 

On the train home, Michael strikes up a curious conversation with a mystery woman played by Vera Farmiga, who makes him a strange and dangerous proposition. Positing herself as a student of the complexities of human behavior, she wants to know whether he’d be willing for a stranger to experience an unclear fate (although in stories like this it’s safe to assume that an uncertain fate almost always involves being dead) in exchange for him receiving a large amount of money, namely twenty five thousand dollars as a down payment on a cool one hundred thousand dollars. 

Michael is in a dilly of a pickle due to losing his job, so he’s particularly receptive to what you don’t need law enforcement experience to know sounds like a very messed-up, almost undoubtedly criminal proposition. I, personally, was distracted by how closely the film’s premise resembles that of the short story and Twilight Zone versions of Richard Matheson’s The Box, which similarly involved desperate people who encounter a mysterious stranger who offers to give them a small fortune in exchange for consenting to something undoubtedly nefarious happening to someone they don’t know. 

By positing the protagonist’s experience as a moral dilemma that forces him to choose between ruthless self-interest (in terms of both himself and his family) and a greater humanitarian concern for the lives and safety of strangers/the rest of humanity, the movie tries to fake an intellectual and philosophical dimension it does not genuinely possess. 

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The Commuter reminds me of a particularly low-fi, low-intelligence episode of Black Mirror, but it lacks the intelligence of the pop-culture phenomenon, even at its most glib. Michael’s moral quandary is really just an excuse to put Neeson in another scenario that calls upon him to talk very angrily and confrontationally on a telephone very often, generally to Farmiga’s mysterious powerbroker, and solve a dumb mystery before his family is killed. 

Neeson spends a lot of time in The Commuter making purposeful small talk with his fellow longtime commuters and some strangers in an effort to determine the identity of a mystery passenger with a mystery bag that he's supposed to track down in order to earn his one hundred thousand dollars. This underlines how spectacularly ill-equipped Michael must have been in his job as an insurance agent, because he clearly enjoys kibitzing with strangers about as much as Neeson enjoys lending his talents to movies like The Commuter. 

The Commuter can’t decide what kind of mediocre, forgettable film it wants to be. It starts off as a weirdly elliptical, pretentious non-science fiction take on a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror premise. Then for much of its running time it’s a Liam Neeson old guy kicking ass thriller/mystery. At a certain point it becomes a derailment thriller, not unlike that one movie Derailed and then at the end the two name actors in the opening credits other than Neeson and Farmiga (that would be Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill) make the world’s most predictable return just in time for an impossible to care about climax. 

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When I was a professional film critic, I never thought of the expense involved in seeing movies. Why would I? I lived like a king! Verily movie studios curried my favor to the extent that they would actually invite me to see new movies for free even before they were theatrically released! Why, they would even set aside whole sections just for film critics. I’ll never forget the gleam in an usher’s eye when he showed me to my seat and sycophantically whimpered, “Here you go, Mr. Rabin, Sir! I hope this film is to your liking! Boffo job on the last write-up! It had me in stitches! I'm never seeing that Schindler's List stinker now! Thanks for the warning!” Why studios would even send us critics shiny baubles in an attempt to win us over, whether in the form of tee-shirts, sexual favors, monster spliffs full of the finest, dankest ganja Jamaica has to offer or the fat checks Marvel sent me to pretend that the films of its “Distinguished Competition” over at D.C were somehow anything less than transcendent. 

Nowadays I think of nothing but the expense involved when civilians like me must fork over our hard-earned money—do you have any idea how many poor-qualities Rodney Dangerfield movies I must watch and then write about to just to keep the lights on and food on the table?—for cinematic entertainment that is often quite poor. 

That is why, if you must see The Commuter, I encourage you to do so at the DeKalb Mall theater, where a matinee ticket can be purchased for four dollars and eighty cents. That’s still more money than I would choose to pay for the film, but at least it’s a third of what it would have cost to see The Commuter in Chicago. Alternately, if you’re on a plane or browsing through Netflix, go ahead and satiate your curiosity about this utterly forgettable mediocrity: it is worth paying exactly zero dollars to experience. I like to say that when it comes to movies people see on airplanes, the higher the altitude, the lower standards. That makes The Commuter the ultimate adequate time-waster for bored businesspeople on planes. Or trains! 

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The sixty-five years old Neeson periodically threatens to retire from action movies while he’s still old and just barely mobile. I don’t know that that’s necessary, but he sure as shit needs to stop making movies like The Commuter, for his own sake, as well as everyone else’s. 

Wanna here me and Clint talk about The Commuter on your personal computer while mourning the death of Tobe Hooper? You know you do. And you can, over at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/nathan-rabins-happy-cast/id1312945471?mt=2

Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place cause he’s trying, man, he really is, over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace