I’ve had, admittedly, a rough start to this year. Between losing a spy satellite that was strapped to a SpaceX rocket and having people say I’m “lame” at sex parties, I had to take my mind off things and just turn my brain off for a couple of hours. And while that was all I was expecting when I got a ticket for The Commuter, Liam Neeson’s newest old guy action movie, I was blown away by what I got for my ticket. I wasn’t just entertained by the sight of Neeson solving a mystery on a commuter train, I was also vindicated in a way that I truly did not see coming.
See, you might remember that I recently had some trouble with a “Ph D” and some other subway zealots who disagreed with my observation that public transit has some problems, specifically that being around so many strangers is a miserable experience and you never know who’s going to try to murder you. So I’ve got to say thank you to director Jaume Collet-Serra for helming a movie that not only proves that any train ride you take could get you wrapped up in a murderous conspiracy, but also cuts through the propaganda of mass transit fanatics and shows how miserable an experience it can be.
The movie itself follows the life of Liam Neeson’s Michael MacCauley, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman with a nice house in Tarrytown and a kid on his way to college. When he loses that job, and his ability to pay for his son’s upcoming college tuition, MacCauley is thrust into a moral dilemma when Vera Farmiga’s mysterious femme fatale brings up a hypothetical scenario for him: What if you could do one thing that would affect a person riding the train, never know how what you did affected them and come away with $25,000 for your troubles? The hypothetical, of course, turns out to be real, and in a moment of weakness, Neeson’s character picks up the $25,000 Farmiga tells him is hidden on the train, and gets himself thrust into a search for a train rider Farmiga tells him stole something from her employers.
From there, Neeson uses his old police skills to try to winnow the train riders down and pick out who he’s been forced to find, and occasionally gets into fights on the train. While it’s not exactly the character study that Suicide Squad was, watching Neeson grapple with his mistake that got him dragged into a murder plot is a fascinating look at a man just trying to do right by his moral code and his family. And as Neeson has shows in so many of his late-career movies, he can bring it in a fistfight and in action setpieces (and take it from a guy who was in Machete Kills), including a long fight with a hired gun in which he swings an electric guitar around like Thor’s Mjolnir.
But while I was definitely enjoying myself watching the conspiracy unwind, I was more delighted to see a movie really get at the pain in the ass that commuting is. Neeson can’t get a seat when he gets on his Metro-North train in the city, and the packed train teeming with humanity looks like a truly miserable place to be. The air conditioning for every car but one winds up getting sabotaged, leading all of the riders to sweat through their shirts and suffer through a hot ride in the middle of the summer. One of the train conductors, surely feeling free of consequences because of his union protections, veers between sarcastically unhelpful to the train rider and outright hostile to Neeson when he asks for help. Though to be fair, there’s also a selfless conductor who sacrifices himself for the good of the riders, and would no doubt earn the frozen yogurt and roller coaster rides Tesla factory workers get for their good work.
The movie also seems to posit that riding the train regularly gives you a kind of tunnel vision, refusing to see the chaos around you. Neeson’s train is a hotbed of criminality that either no one notices or cares about. He gets into a loud fistfight with a man in a vestibule in one car, and one young girl riding the train turns out to be transporting a bag full of fake IDs for sale. A man is murdered on the train, his body hidden in a compartment in one of the cars, and no one even seems to hear or know about the crime.
When everyone was busy freaking out about my mass transit comments, one of my critics said that “the company of ‘random strangers’ is what a city is,” as if it was some kind of revelation. But The Commuter is even able to turn this alleged benefit on its head. Neeson has a commute friend in Jonathan Banks’ character as a gruff, sardonic longtime Metro-North rider who says things like “I gotta take a leak, my prostate is bigger than your head.” Sure, Neeson and Banks seem to have a good rapport and decent friendship born of circumstances, but this just gets used against Neeson. When Banks gets off the train, carrying a message Neeson gave him to give to the police, the train conveniently stops near 125th Street to allow Neeson to watch his friend get pushed in front of a city bus and die, just so he can understand how serious the people he’s wrapped with are.
Leaving aside the fact that once we ramp up production and everyone in cities are passengers in their own self-driving Model 3s these kinds of traffic fatalities will be a thing of the past, it’s distressing to think we live in a world where your commuter friends can be used against you like this. Now, obviously, I have a solution for this problem in part, which is for more cities to allow the Boring Company to get to the business of digging tunnels so that we can make my network of individualized transport pods a reality. When you’re getting skated along at 130 miles per hour in your own car, going essentially door-to-door, there won’t be opportunities for people to sabotage your air conditioning. There won’t be rude ticket takers interrupting your trip, and there certainly won’t be people sitting down across from you and ensaring you in a conspiracy that results in you getting pegged as a lunatic hostage taker. So in its own way, The Boring Company isn’t just solving traffic problems, we’re engineering solutions to some of the most exhausting and common trials of the human condition.
But I will say while watching Neeson and Banks’ rapport with each other, I came to appreciate the idea of companionship being more than just never being alone. So I’m proud to announce a new piece of the puzzle that The Boring Company is working on in order to solve the problem of loneliness on your commute through the tunnels. Imagine a social network of sorts, of people around you who seem to be going the same way you go each day through the tunnels. If you see you’ve got things in common with someone on the network, you’ll be able to “invite” them into your car through the use of a holographic projector that you’ll have in your car, letting you shoot the shit on the commute. This will both allow for companionship and the protection of your autonomy, since of course a hologram can’t hurt you. Because if there’s a real lesson to take away from The Commuter, it’s that the company of strangers contains only so much reward compared to the risk.
Dave Colon is a freelance writer and former editor at Gothamist. Follow him on Twitter @davecolon