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The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Daybreakers (2010)

Taking a cue from zombie cinema, Daybreakers takes the idea of vampire-as-virus to an apocalyptic crescendo. The world is populated almost exclusively by vampires now. Human beings are farmed for blood but they are in such limited supplies. You see there is an extreme blood shortage because the vampires have lived beyond their means. That’s right, it’s a consumer consumption/environmental metaphor. The limited resources are dire because if vampires go without human blood they begin to devolve into senseless, winged mutating monsters known as “subsiders.” The poor cannot afford the skyrocketing blood prices so they are most fated to doom, while the rich argue that the blood supplies need to go to families first and not be wasted on the lesser dregs. The U.S. vampiric military, when not hunting humans, shackles the subsiders and marches them into the sunlight to be executed. Daybreakers has a lot more on its mind than most vampire movies, and it’s plainly fascinating to explore the realities of a world run by vampires (cars that drive during the day, the Subwalk, blood in your coffee). For most of its running length, Daybreakers is an intriguing setup that makes room for cool visceral action and social commentary. Then in the final act it sort of devolves itself into one big, dumb action movie. Ethan Hawke is a blood scientist trying to work on a synthetic substitute for a super vampire corporation that, of course, is evil. He stumbles upon an outlandish “cure” for vampirism and wants to resurrect humanity. This leads to a climax where Hawke and his human warriors wage battle inside the corporate HQ. For a promising concept, it’s depressing that Daybreakers had to end in such a typical manner. At least the vampires explode in the sun instead of sparkling.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jurassic Park III (2001)

Jurassic Park 3 – or – How I Stopped Worrying About Plot and Started Loving Dinosaur Mayhem

As we last left Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) he is still making the rounds to financially support his ailing archeological digs in Montana. A couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) ask the good doctor to be their guide as they have chartered a plane to fly over the island of Isla Sorna (or Nublar, I forget which, they’re both really Hawaii anyway). Grant hesitates at first but when their checkbook comes out he begrudgingly accepts – proving again like the first two, that no matter what the danger, archeologists will do whatever for grants. The truth is that the couple is searching for their lost boy (Trevor Morgon) who was stranded on the island when he partook in an idiotic para-sailing sight seeing adventure by the island. Of course the plane gets destroyed and they must all fend for themselves.

Jurassic Park 3 makes no bones about what it really is – a dino thrill ride. There’s no opportunities to flesh out characters, there’s no time for set-up, it’s just straight to the island and constant running from peril from there. The pacing of the film and structure is like an amusement park; the people are on one ride that thrills, then they quickly move to another within minutes, and repeat for an afternoon of fun. To boil it down it’s dinos chase humans, stir, and bake for 90 minutes.

It seems that in every Jurassic movie we have some kind of new scientific theory being explored and eventually vilified. In the first it was dinosaurs behaved more like birds and perhaps evolved into them, the second had something to do with maternal behavior and parenting. And now in Jurassic Park 3 the new scientific dig is that raptors could communicate verbally to one another – in essence talk. There’s even a sequence late into the flick where they basically “talk” straight for something like a minute. I was hoping Dr. Doolittle would waltz in at any moment and start singing, but, despite my best hopes and wishes, it was not to be.

The effects and animatronics have gotten better than ever, and they were stellar to begin with. There are moments of great thrills and fun, but too often then not, it all feels routine. What should be an awesome sight of dinosaurs roaming is now blasé. What should be fearsome coming face to face with the familiar predators like T. Rex and the raptors now seems, well… too familiar. The only true moment of great awe and freshness is when the group is walking along a rickety walkway only to discover they’re inside a giant aviary complete with hungry pterodactyls.

Acting in a Jurassic Park film usually consists of a healthy scream and some fast legs. Everyone is okay by those standards, but Leoni’s character is just far too annoying. I would’ve enjoyed the flick more if she had been eaten. In another stroke of sure luck, all of the major Hollywood cast members survive yet all the extras or unknowns perish. Call it the Poseidon Adventure syndrome (Thank you Ebert for writing this first so that I might rip you off in the future).

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) inherited the dino franchise from master guru Spielberg and has done a fairly capable job with his efforts. The action is fast and there are a couple of particularly nice visual set-ups sprinkled through out the film. The marvel that was in Spielberg’s touch is the most missing however. The “script” (and I use this in a very loose sense) is actually co-credited to Alexander Payne, which is a rather interesting morsel. The most interesting one though has to be that the young Morgon has actually starred in another dinosaur picture before in his short career – Barney’s Great Adventure.

For action fans in this bleak summer release period Jurassic Park 3 will serve a fine dish at 90 minutes of fast dinosaur attacks and squeals. Hopefully though the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise will be stopped before the wonder it used to have turns passé. Because right now it’s teetering on the brink.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Bicentennial Man (1999)

I shed a tear for what the great comedian Robin Williams has become. Once the quickest and sharpest of minds just cascading with outrageous and fanciful wit has been turned into the holiday gift-giver of schmaltzy pull-from-the-heartstrings sap.

The story of Bicentennial Man is set in the not-too-distant future, so not-too-distant that it looks like it’s just next week – with the addition of flying cars. The future seems to lack outbursts, crime, and even minorities. Seems like not everyone has a future I guess. In this world of marvels you can buy a shiny metal man for your home life and/or atrociously neglectful parenting needs. Enter walking trash receptical robo-Robin as Sam Niell’s family nanny and solution for not getting his children a dog. Through the 200 years robo-Robin learns to laugh, and love, and what the true meaning of humanity is and heart. Put some scrubs on him and this entire thing is basically Patch Adams in Space.

As the film lags on it grows increasingly more annoying until the point where it might cause audiences to bleed from the ears. If you thought a dentist appointment was painful just wait until the euthanasia comedy kicks in here.

Williams yet again throws on his usual holiday blubbery dough eyes and message of good will. But this time the pill is much harder to swallow, especially coming from an actor encased in silver foam rubber. The movie aims for a deep message of what makes us human, but comes away more likely with the message of “Wait an hour for Williams to get this crap off then do his schtick.” If you’re trying to find out what makes people human, it certainly ain’t this flick. Williams has such unparalleled comic ability that one wonders why he is wasting his time on sappy films like these when he needs to flee back to his zany comedic roots. Anyone could be a robot in this, judging from the acting for a start, but no one can do the things Williams does – and that’s why his uniqueness is being utterly wasted.

The real heart breaker isn’t in this movie, it’s seeing Robin Williams fade into mediocrity and seem content with it.

Nate’s Grade: D

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