There has, thus far, been a pleasing interchangeability to the titles in the banging, clattering action oeuvre cultivated by Liam Neeson and Spanish genre maestro Jaume Collet-Serra. “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” sound so tersely generic as to be slyly ironic, and that hint of playing-dumb humor extends to their gleefully absurd thriller mechanics: All three put rather a lot of crafty thought into their empty-headed pleasures. “The Commuter” sounds more tastefully sedate by comparison, but don’t be fooled. Neeson and Collet-Serra’s whooshing, whiplash-inducing fourth collaboration could as easily be titled “Run Non-Stop Into the Unknown” — a moving-train whodunit that makes Kenneth Branagh’s jacked-up “Murder on the Orient Express” remake look like “Jeanne Dielman” by comparison, it’s so concerned with its own sheer speed that any semblance of storytelling logic is left waving from the platform.
That’s not necessarily a problem in the Collet-Sera Cinematic Universe, but “The Commuter’s” breakneck incoherence — not to mention a generally dour demeanor, shorter on incidental humor than most of the helmer’s work — makes it a notch less fun than those previous ex-trash-aganzas. Coming after the tight, laser-focused precision of last year’s terrific shark suspenser “The Shallows,” this noisy, sure-to-be-popular chunk of January multiplex filler suggests Collet-Serra would do well to explore further corners of the B-movie realm. But that’s not to deny the transient pleasures of “The Commuter,” a film that enthusiastically puts the humble passenger car through almost as many mechanical acrobatics as any “Fast and Furious” hot rod, in the process gifting us with the line, “Between the train and the people, I always knew it would be the train.” Given the depth of character development and human investment in the narrative, action-rapt audiences may feel likewise.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a clearer moment-to-moment sense of what’s simply going on in “The Commuter.” The film commences the bafflement from the off, with a needlessly tricksy opening-credits sequence, rife with repeated fades to black, that splits and splices timelines — all for the sake of establishing the thoroughly mundane morning routine of Michael MacCauley (Neeson), a gray-suited insurance salesman and family man who commutes daily between his Manhattan office and his well-cushioned Upstate home.
Not that you’d cast Neeson, of course, as an insurance guy without some manner of meaner past that has taught him some tougher skills: Turns out that McCauley used to work as an ace police profiler until a decade ago, before trading in his badge for a more sedate suburban life with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, vastly overqualified) and kids.
That background — and his ongoing friendship with troubled cop Murphy (Patrick Wilson) — go some way toward explaining the murky cloak-and-dagger that ensues, though the head-scratchers pile up faster than the revelations. On his Metro-North train home, McCauley is approached by the enigmatic Joanna (Vera Farmiga, silkily sinister as ever) with an impromptu mission: Find an unidentified fellow passenger transporting critical cargo, or risk the lives of not just the remaining travelers, but his own family at home.
It’s a basic enough ultimatum, but the further McCauley looks into the criminal conspiracy at hand, the less sense it makes to him and viewers alike. Random red herrings and Dan Brown-level literary riddles are the order of the day as the literal end of the line approaches; Neeson, his brow dutifully furrowed, musters what gravelly authority he can as he profiles a motley crew of other commuters — a classily cast bunch ranging from Jonathan Banks to “Lady Macbeth” breakout Florence Pugh — for clues.
Lest audiences put too much tortuous thought into the motives or endgame of pretty much anyone in this scenario, Collet-Serra cranks up this locomotive as he knows best, building as much breathless, senseless real-time momentum as possible before train and plot go simultaneously, albeit spectacularly, off the rails. Even when Neeson isn’t darting urgently from carriage to carriage, cinematographer Paul Cameron (working in shades of five o’clock tan that match the muddiness of the puzzle) makes the talkiest scenes antsy with handheld camerawork; the fevered, no-time-to-think atmosphere is maintained by editor Nicholas De Toth. Incidentally, he’s the son of filmmaker Andre, director of the original “House of Wax” that was later remade by Collet-Sera — “The Commuter” may be fast, but not so engrossing that your mind can’t ponder these degrees of separation at the same time.
Even the daftest, dooziest set pieces here don’t have quite the clarity or invention of Collet-Serra’s most vigorous action choreography — nor of such superior rail-bound heart-pounders as “Unstoppable” or either version of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” But you sense such inevitable comparisons on the film’s mind as well as ours. Whether at his most inspired or his most workmanlike, Collet-Serra may just be the heir apparent to Tony Scott: an eager showman and a clock-conscious conductor of thrills, whether the script has earned them or not.
Film Review: 'The Commuter'
Reviewed at Soho Hotel screening room, London, Dec. 8, 2017.
Production: (U.S.-U.K.) A Lionsgate, Studiocanal presentation of a The Picture Company production in association with Ombra Films. (International sales: Studiocanal, London.) Producers: Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman. Executive producers: Michael Dreyer, Juan Sola, Jaume Collet-Serra, Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer.
Crew: Director: Jaume Collet-Serra. Screenplay: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle, from a story by Willinger, de Blasi. Camera (color, widescreen): Paul Cameron. Editor: Nicholas de Toth. Music: Roque Banos.
With: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Florence Pugh, Shazad Latif, Letitia Wright, Killian Scott, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Damson Idris, Andy Nyman, Colin McFarlane, Kingsley Ben-Adir.
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Not to be confused with Unknown (2006 film).
Unknown is a 2011 psychological thrilleraction film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella. The film is based on the 2003 French novel published in English as Out of My Head, by Didier Van Cauwelaert. Released in the United States on February 18, 2011, the film received mixed reviews from critics and grossed $136 million against its $30 million budget.
Dr. Martin Harris and his wife Liz arrive in Berlin for a biotechnology summit. At their hotel, Martin realises he left his briefcase at the airport and takes a taxi to retrieve it. On the way, the taxi is involved in an accident and crashes into the Spree, knocking Martin unconscious. The driver, Gina, rescues him and flees the scene, as she is an illegal immigrant from Bosnia. Martin regains consciousness at a hospital after having been in a coma.
When Martin returns to the hotel, he discovers Liz with another man who she says is Dr Harris, and she claims to not know him. The police arrest Martin. He phones a colleague, Prof. Rodney Cole, but reaches only his voice mail. Aboard a train, Martin writes down his schedule for the next day by memory. Martin visits the office of Prof. Leo Bressler, whom he is scheduled to meet, but sees the impostor, "Martin B", already there. As Martin attempts to prove his identity, Martin B shows him his ID and family photo, both of which have the impostor's face. Overwhelmed by the identity crisis, Martin falls unconscious, then finds himself back at the hospital. Smith, an assassin sent to target Martin, kills a nurse, Gretchen Erfurt, but Martin escapes.
He seeks help from Erfurt's friend, private investigator and former Stasi agent Ernst Jürgen. Martin's only clues are his father's book on botany and Gina, who since the crash now works at a diner. While Martin persuades Gina to help him, Jürgen researches Martin and the biotechnology summit. He discovers the summit will be attended by Prince Shada of Saudi Arabia, who is funding a secret project headed by Bressler. Prince Shada has survived numerous assassination attempts, and Jürgen suspects that Martin's identity theft might be related.
At Gina's apartment, Smith and another terrorist, Jones, attack; the couple escapes after Gina kills Smith. In his book, Martin finds that Liz has written a series of numbers that correspond to words found on specific pages. Using his schedule, Martin confronts Liz alone; she tells him he left his briefcase at the airport. Meanwhile, Jürgen receives Cole at his office and reveals his findings about a secretive assassination group known as 'Section 15'. Jürgen soon deduces that Cole is a former mercenary and potent killer from the group. Knowing Cole is here to kill him and he has no way of escaping, Jürgen commits suicide by ingesting cyanide to protect Martin from Section 15.
After retrieving his briefcase, Martin parts ways with Gina. When she sees him kidnapped by Cole and Jones, she steals a taxicab and chases them. When Martin wakes, Cole says Martin Harris is a cover name in the Section 15 assassin team. Liz notified Cole of Martin's head injury, which caused him to believe his persona was real; Martin B was activated as his replacement. Gina runs over Jones before he can kill Martin, then rams Cole's van, killing him. After Martin finds a hidden compartment in his briefcase containing two Canadian passports, he remembers that he and Liz were in Berlin three months prior to plant a bomb in Prince Shada's suite.
Now aware of his own role in the assassination plot, Martin seeks to redeem himself by thwarting it. Hotel security immediately arrests Martin and Gina, but Martin convinces them of his earlier presence in the hotel. Liz uses her own copy of the book's secret codes to remotely access Bressler's laptop and steal the data. After being convinced of the bomb's presence, security evacuates the hotel.
Martin suddenly realizes that Prince Shada is not the target, but Bressler, who has developed a genetically modified breed of corn capable of surviving harsh climates. With Bressler's death and the theft of his research, billions of dollars would fall into the wrong hands. Seeing their assassination attempt has been foiled, Liz dies attempting to disarm the bomb. Martin kills Martin B, the last remaining Section 15 terrorist, before the latter can murder Bressler. Bressler announces he is giving his project to the world for free, while Martin and Gina board a train together with new identities.
Many German actors were cast for the film. Bock had previously starred in Inglourious Basterds (which also starred Diane Kruger) and The White Ribbon. Other cast includes Adnan Maral as a Turkish taxi driver and Petra Schmidt-Schaller as an immigration officer. Kruger herself is also German, despite playing a non-German character.
Principal photography took place in early February 2010 in Berlin, Germany, and in the Studio Babelsberg film studios. The bridge the taxi plunges from is the Oberbaumbrücke. The Friedrichstraße was blocked for several nights for the shooting of a car chase. Some of the shooting was done in the Hotel Adlon. Locations include the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Berlin Friedrichstraße station, Pariser Platz, Museum Island, the Oranienburger Straße in Berlin and the Leipzig/Halle Airport. According to Andrew Rona, the budget was $40 million. Producer Joel Silver's US company Dark Castle Entertainment contributed $30 million. German public film funds supported the production with €4.65 million (more than $6 million). The working title was Unknown White Male.
Unknown was screened out of competition at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. It was released in the United States on February 18, 2011.
On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, the film has an approval rating of 55% based on 191 reviews; the average rating is 5.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Liam Neeson elevates the proceedings considerably, but Unknown is ultimately too derivative – and implausible – to take advantage of its intriguing premise." On Metacritic the film has an average weighted score of 56 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Richard Roeper gave the film a B+ and wrote, "At times, Unknown stretches plausibility to the near breaking point, but it's so well paced and the performances are so strong and most of the questions are ultimately answered. This is a very solid thriller." Justin Chang of Variety called it "an emotionally and psychologically threadbare exercise".
Unknown grossed $63.7 million in North America and $72.4 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $136.1 million.
It finished a number one opening at its first week of release with $21.9 million.