Alright, so let's start by getting the obvious out of the way. The Commuter is bad. It is very bad. It is not quite Geostorm bad, but it's close. Liam Neeson is now totally stuck in the role of Elderly Action Star but in this iteration they seem to have forgotten that what made Taken such deranged fun was that Neeson's character was actually a bad-ass who could, you know, beat the shit out of people. In The Commuter, Neeson is less an avenging angel of death and more like Gil from The Simpsons. Literally. He sells insurance.
The film opens with a quick-cutting montage establishing the particulars of Neeson's life (married, lives in a suburb, college-aged son getting ready to go to Syracuse, which they can't pay for) and establishing that he is a man of routine (wake up, make breakfast, little family time, wife drops him off at the train station where he commutes into the city). This little montage efficiently uses a bouncy visual rhythm to establish the things we need to know without a big exposition dump. It's economical and effective and is the only part of the movie that could charitably be described as "good. From this point on, it is straight down into the toilet.
We learn that Neeson is an insurance salesman and after his family lost everything in the 2008 Financial Crisis they now live hand-to-mouth. "We cut every bit of fat" he overshares with a client, even though we have just seen his wife drop him off in a BMW so this seems rather disingenuous. He is then fired from his job for being old, and we learn that he is an ex-cop. Apparently he quit the force to become... an insurance salesman? Well, that is the kind of movie we are in I guess. Also, in case you haven't been paying attention, the movie will remind you every 45 seconds that this man rides the train every day.
As he is riding the train home, a woman approaches him with an offer: use your former cop skills to find a person named Prynne on the train and place a GPS device on their bag. Get $100,000. No questions asked. At this point I was mildly intrigued by the concept which the AV Club had described as a "smart dumb" thriller so I thought to myself: Here we go! Of course, we were actually about to go nowhere except into the butthole of a movie so poorly thought out that it could have passed itself off as a Dadaist fever dream if it weren't so earnestly stupid. I am going to spoil the rest of the movie now, which I don't in any event recommend that you go see so you might as well just read this.
Neeson begins to suspect he has made a kind of devil's bargain and tries to back-track which results in the death of Mike from Breaking Bad. He then decides to reluctantly go through with the plan, do avoid any further needless deaths. This immediately results in the death of another man, who it turns out is an FBI agent. At his point our hero is directly responsible for getting two innocent people killed. Is he even remotely troubled by this? Apparently not, as he never thinks about or mentions his complicity in their deaths ever again. This motherfucker is cold as ice!
It soon becomes clear that Neeson is embroiled in a vast and comically over-complicated conspiracy plot. A shadowy organization is somehow able to control events with such precision that they have Mike pushed in front of a bus right at the exact moment that the intersection is visible from where Neeson is standing in a moving commuter train. Yet, remarkably, they have chosen to use this apparent total control over the public transit system for evil instead of for improving the quality of transportation infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion. Also, if this vast conspiratorial network is so powerful and so all-knowing, how come they don't know who Prynne is? Questions like these are loudly shouted down by what ends up being the film's main conceit: Liam Neeson, a 60-year-old former police officer, getting beaten up repeatedly.
This motif first presents itself when Neeson gets into a fist fight with the aforementioned FBI agent. You would be forgiven for thinking Neeson is gonna use his particular set of skills to kick some ass Taken-style but what actually follows is an old man getting punched in the face and then put in a chokehold. In a later scene, another guy beats him up with a guitar (to be fair, he eventually snatches the guitar back like an angry band teacher and gets in some smashing of his own!). The director shoots this guitar fight in a single-take which I guess is meant to trick us into thinking it is good. There are more fight scenes, but the one thing they have in common - other than being bad - is that they prominently feature an old man getting punched, kicked and occasionally smashed with musical instruments.
OK, so he's not a bad-ass. But at least he's a bad-ass sleuth, right? Hah! Have you learned nothing yet? His sleuthing in this film consists of him repeatedly walking up and down a commuter train, badgering people like a psycho, and checking ticket stubs. I cannot really accurately convey to you what a terrible detective Liam Neeson is in this film. His investigative style swings wildly from "acting like a creepy pedophile" to "acting like a guy who just snorted a backpack full of cocaine." The other train passengers are repulsed by this weirdo whenever he asks them a question. This is supposed to make them seem suspicious, but in fact they are just acting like absolutely normal human beings would in a situation where a sweaty, bleeding man sits next to you on a commuter train and starts asking weird questions in an agitated manner.
At one point Neeson is in the middle of executing his primary investigative technique: badgering a random guy. "I've never seen you on this train and I ride it every day!" he says, in the improbable event that we have forgotten this. Instead of macing an obvious maniac, the badgered man begins to act suspicious until finally producing a copy of his ticket even though he is under no obligation to do so by any Natural Law of Man. Liam Neeson stares at the man in shocked wonderment and then declares: "This is a monthly train pass!" This is supposed to play like a Sixth Sense-level reveal where the audience gasps in disbelief, but it actually gives the impression that we are watching a badly translated Russian TV documentary. The degree to which different types of commuter rail passes play a pivotal role in the plot of this film is simply mind-boggling.
Eventually Neeson does enough incompetent sleuthing and takes enough guitars to the face to thwart the conspiracy. So what do the bad guys do? They blow up the entire train. Now, you might wonder why, if they were willing to blow up the train, they didn't just do that in the beginning? I cannot stress enough the urgency of not asking these kinds of questions. So the train blows up and derails which can only mean one thing: it is time for a low-stakes, drawn-out hostage situation in which the details of the conspiracy are revealed to be so nonsensical that one can only long for the invention of a time machine so they travel go back to two hours ago and warn their younger self not to go into the theater. Finally, the movie reaches its conclusion in which Liam Neeson - who by this point is responsible for the deaths of about a dozen people, the derailment of a train and has taken a bunch of people hostage - is given his old job back on the police force and promoted.
This movie is a bad pastiche of better films. It tries to ape the whodunit on a train structure of Murder on the Orient Express, but fails because a) the potential suspects are so thinly drawn b) Hercule Poirot was good at his job and didn't get beat up constantly. It tries to lasso some commentary on race and class issues into the claustrophobic compartments of the train, ala Snowpiercer, but of course it totally fails at that too. Improbably, it even rips off Spartacus at one point.
I hope this movie serves as a cautionary tale to any would-be creators out there who are thinking about setting a film inside a commuter train in which the hero is a crazy old maniac who gets beat up constantly and where the central mystery is what kind of commuter rail pass various people on the train have. It seems like it shouldn't be necessary to say that out loud, but obviously someone thought it was a good idea and someone else agreed with them and gave them millions of dollars to turn it into a movie. We live in weird times indeed.