Neeson stars as Michael McCauley, a former NYPD cop turned insurance salesman. Michael accepts, but as he searches, he realizes that he's being drawn into the middle of a criminal conspiracy with dire stakes and limited options. With The Commuter, Collet-Serra and his star return to the action-oriented style of their first two team-ups, but it's clear that a third trip to that particular well is coming up largely empty.
The first act of the film feels nearly like a present-day Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock thriller. He's so squeaky clean, when he's first approached by Joanna, he holds up his wedding band and gently informs her he's married, just so there's no confusion (like Mike Pence with a strong right hook). Drawing on Michael's background as a cop, she asks him to find a passenger who "doesn't belong" on this train. In less skillful hands, the shots could drag, but underlined with the ominous yet subtle score, they add a frenetic energy to the screen.
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By the time he regrets accepting the assignment, Michael's suburban family is being threatened by thugs, and he's forced to rely on his own resourcefulness to spare his own life and those of his fellow passengers. The director typically makes good use of the environments in his films, be it the inescapable inside of the airplane from Non-Stop or the attractive and isolated beach in The Shallows.
Despite the film'sfocus on the complexities of the commute-driven plot, its success rests squarely on the believability of the commuters themselves. Neeson then asserts that men need to step up and help fix the problem. The film revolves around the audience's ability to understand Michael's desperation and suspend any disbelief about his superhuman skills. ".And you just hope the part's good", he laughs. Flung jobless into the mad swirl of midday Manhattan, with a spouse on the line inquiring about their kid's college-tuition payments, Michael is shell-shocked - an existential state well-suited to the handsomely aged Neeson's gaunt, somewhat gangly aspect. After leaving the train, Farmiga is relegated to simply making phone calls that drive the narrative forward.
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Joanna exits the train early on, but she seems to have eyes and ears everywhere, and she's constantly in touch with Michael, reminding him of the grave consequences he'll be facing if he doesn't follow the plan all the way through.
The film doesn't gain much traction from its familiar claustrophobic setting aboard a crowded train, nor does it take much time to ponder the moral complexity inherent in its thin ticking-clock premise. This film has layers.
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"The Commuter" is a solid, if ultimately forgettable film. (When Michael learns of this backstory, he promptly curses the man out and gives him the finger, which is kind of Collet-Serra in a charming nutshell, quickly embellishing his gamely silly scenario with tossed-off wisdom from the 99 percent.) And as in Non-Stop, the camera (the cinematographer here is Paul Cameron) defies the laws of physics, swimming seamlessly from vehicle to auto with little regard for dumb things like walls or doors or floorboards; at times, it sweeps the interiors with such vigor it might be dusting for prints.