Liam Neeson spends the vast majority of Retribution stuck inside a car. Luckily, there are few actors alive today who are better suited to being stuck inside a car. For the past few years, Neeson (now 71) has looked for ways to keep doing the dadsploitation action flicks that were already a kind of late-career heel turn for him. In some films, as with 2022’s Memory, he has used age to his advantage, turning his characters’ fragility into a key emotional element; in others, his age has stuck out like an infected blister. In Retribution, his age is basically irrelevant. He’s inside a car, and if he gets out, it explodes. But he doesn’t need to drive fast or anything. He could take a nap if he wanted to. He just can’t get out of the car.
Because this is a Liam Neeson film, he’s also got his two kids with him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Neeson’s action movies often turn on his characters’ anxieties as a father and/or husband — sublimating his own tragic personal history into the realm of fictional motivation. Similarly, that anxiety usually comes from a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that his characters weren’t there for their loved ones when things mattered, or that all their efforts weren’t enough to stop the world’s tragedy and pain.
Retribution follows that formula closely. In its opening scenes, we see Neeson’s Berlin-based hedge-fund manager Matt Turner distracted by work, ignoring his wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz — hey, it’s a Schindler’s List reunion!), and complaining about having to take his teenage son (Jack Champion) and young daughter (Lily Aspell) to school. Neeson has been capable of great warmth onscreen, but he’s also one of those actors who can do oblivious in his sleep; that tall, regal bearing of his, and those eyes that always seem to be looking elsewhere, suggest a man whose head can’t be bothered with the rest of us mere mortals.
The kids are initially oblivious to the fact that as soon as they all get in the car, Matt starts being tormented by a voice in his phone telling him that the car seats have been rigged to explode if anybody shifts their weight off them. As the voice forces Matt to drive around the city, our hero discovers that others involved with his hedge fund are also being targeted. What’s worse, as car bombs explode around the city, Matt becomes a suspect and his face starts flashing on billboards across Berlin.
It will not come as a surprise to anybody that Retribution is riddled with plot holes and takes some predictable turns. The kids are too calm at points, and some elements suggest either reshoots or re-edits. (Like many of Neeson’s recent action flicks, Retribution is based on a previous European film, in this case the 2015 Spanish thriller The Stranger, which I have not seen.) The cast is sparse, though it’s always nice to see Matthew Modine onscreen. Succession’s Arian Moayed shows up for about two minutes before [redacted].
They say that the best way to find out if a chef has skills is to ask them to make a simple soup. Similarly, director Nimrod Antal (a Hollywood journeyman who started in Hungary and has made a career out of shooting B movies that punch above their weight) clearly knows exactly where the heart of this picture lies. Most of Retribution consists of three shots: a close-up of Matt, a close-up of his daughter, and a close-up of his son. But out of these simple building blocks and this nothing script, Antal extracts plenty of suspense and even emotion. For all the film’s awkwardness, we’re invested in the situation and what will happen with it. We sense Matt’s concern for his kids, as well as his confusion as to why this is happening to him. He’s a pathologically distracted man being distracted by something profoundly urgent, and Neeson balances the character’s terror as well as his increasingly pathetic attempts to stay in control.
This is a paycheck movie, to be sure, the kind of direct-to-video title that gets a theatrical release because the lead actor still has star power. But he and his director have earned that paycheck. I’m excited to see what Liam Neeson will be stuck inside next.
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