Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Noma Dumezweni, Lilly Aspell, Jack Champion, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Modine, Arian Moayed.
Synopsis: A bank executive receives a bomb threat while driving his children to school that his car will explode if they stop and get out.
Although he famously said he’d retire from the action B-movie genre he’s stamped his considerable name all over, Scottish screen icon Liam Neeson continues to put audiences through their generic, homogenised action paces with Retribution, an English-language remake of the 2015 Spanish film El desconocido. Directed by editing room choices and a sense of energetic camera placement, filmmaker Nimrod Antal (Vacancy, Predators) puts Neeson through fairly straight-laced parent-in-peril thrills in what is an effective but exceptionally forgettable subgenre entry that serves more to bulk out his leading man’s filmography on Wikipedia than it does for audience enjoyment.
Neeson plays European-based financier Matt Turner, who’s life is sent into a spin when, as he’s driving his two young kids to school, is contacted by a mysterious voice on a strange phone and advised that there’s a bomb under his seat rigged to blow, and that he has to follow a series of increasingly weird instructions. With daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell) and son Zach (Jack Champion) in immediate danger, Matt races through the city undertaking the tasks the strange voice gives him, and he is forced to witness the deaths of two of his firms partners in Sylvian (Arian Moayed) and best friend Anders Muller (Matthew Modine), while his long-suffering wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) and local Interpol detective Angela Brickman (Noma Dumezweni) try to get him to leave the vehicle.
From its drab grey metropolitan Berlin setting to its oftentimes ludicrous looseness with logic, Retribution is an enjoyably silly time-waster from Liam Neeson and a considerably talented production team. The film looks great – cinematographer Flavio Labiana is a regular inductee to the Juan Collett-Sera school of journeyman filmmaking, working alongside the producer and Neeson in films such as Unknown, Non-Stop and The Gunman, and his slick work here gives the film a polish I almost wish it didn’t have – and accompanied by a steady, subgenre-ready pulsating score from Harry Gregson-Williams, a name I always perk up at seeing whenever it’s up on the screen, aurally things are already quite positive. Supporting cast members Matthew Modine and Embeth Davidtz give the film some gravitas despite all the silly plot twists thrown at the audience, yet it’s Chris Salmanpour’s sub-par screenplay that lets things down towards the end. Films of this singular premise, such as Arlington Road or David Fincher’s Panic Room, require a modicum of tonal precision to evoke genuine audience empathy in a film’s lead character; despite a rock solid setup, the payoff to Retribution feels half-hearted and, in terms of motivation, unearned, with obviously stupid character developments and plot twists dealing this film’s fun sense of zippy peril a fatal blow.
That’s not to say the cast and Nimrod don’t give it their all. Neeson is always enjoyable when sinking his teeth into such potboiler material, and he absolutely gets what this film is intended to be – it’s not intelligent, but it is enjoyable in a superficial sense, and he goes whole hog with giving Matt Turner a real sense of jeopardy as he barrels along the various German highways and sidestreets. His car-bound co-stars for the majority, young Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell, are themselves quite good but their characters serve purely as plot mechanics and nothing more, and the way the film is structured you can tell from the jump that both will make it to the end credits alive, if not entirely uninjured. Noma Dumezweni (recently appearing alongside Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid) plays the eponymous law enforcement officer tasked with taking Matt down (or bringing him to justice), and while Standard Eurocentric Law Official has become practically a default setting for these kinds of continental-backed film productions, Dumezweni tries her hardest to give something, anything, to the role. Embeth Davidzt is excellent in the small role of Matt’s wife, and Matthew Modine pops in for what is an extended cameo as one of Matt’s business firm associates.
When the career of Liam Neeson is picked over once it’s all said and done, very few people will likely remember what Retribution is about or whether it was any good, because as a piece of entertainment its as intellectually nutritious as a puddle of water. It’s enjoyable, sure, and you’ll find yourself slapping your forehead at some of the boneheaded plot decisions made by both the main characters and the background ones – honestly, there’s a protracted police chase through the streets of Berlin and not a single police car is able to stop Liam Neeson’s growling nonsense from getting to where he needs to be? What??? – but the film is entirely forgettable within a moment. Perfect Sunday afternoon fodder that asks little of the audience, has a reasonable amount of action and thrills, gives Neeson more chances to grimace and harangue various denizens to do what he needs, capping it all off with quite an unsatisfying climax that is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be to satisfy the setup. The final third of this film comes to an almost complete stop, and just when it threatens to get moving again some inexplicable plot decisions are made that have you scratching your head going “huh?” Recommended for a bit of silly nonsense fun, just keep your expectations in check.