Retribution is comically familiar, yet that familiarity breeds comfort for the average movie watcher who wants something not too complicated.
Editor’s note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Fifteen years after Taken, people still mess with Liam Neeson and his family. After showcasing his particular set of skills in the Pierre Morel-directed action thriller, the now 71-year-old actor is enjoying this new leg of his career as an action hero. Retribution adds to the growing list of action-thrillers featuring Neeson as a paternal figure forced to protect what he loves.
Retribution, the English remake of the 2015 Spanish movie El Desconocido, follows an American investment banker living in Berlin. As he drives his teenage son and daughter to school one day he discovers he is sitting on a bomb that will detonate if he stops the car. Neeson’s Matt Turner must obey a mysterious person on the phone who instructs him to drive to one point after another, ensuring that he is implicated in a series of car bombings at every location. The movie broadly tells the story of a man in duress, forced into a lethal situation.
Matt Turner does not possess a particular set of skills, but Neeson surely does. No matter how adept his characters are in combat or in high-stakes situations, Neeson deploys the same almost mechanical line readings, expressions, and mannerisms. In his voice, you can hear an inkling of his fading, yet ever-present Irish accent. No matter what the project may be, you can more or less predict what Neeson’s performance will be. There is also an increased level of comfort for Neeson here as he takes on producing duties with his long-time collaborators Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman, who produced Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, and The Commuter. Considering these titles, you can almost predict the basic formula of Retribution.
Retribution does have its wins, though. There is a reasonably fun twist, made better if you haven’t seen the original film or even the majority of Neeson’s filmography. Also, Noma Dumezweni is a delight to see, effortlessly charismatic while raising the quality of the film exponentially. While there has been a familiar throughline with Neeson’s projects, some are made better than others with inventive filmmaking styles and craftsmanship. Here we have the action of the movie almost exclusively taking place in the driver’s seat, with the drama and tension deriving from Turner and his kids (Lilly Aspell and Jack Champion) becoming unwitting accomplices in a terrorist act while being terrorized themselves. Director Nimród Antal does his best with a simplistic script. With a semi-tight 90-minute run, Antal stages the action to make the explosive ride be impactful. By no means is he flexing some auteur-level skills, but when Antal is cornered with the predictable route, he pushes just enough to earn Retribution the “it’s a good time” stamp of approval.
The movie is ridiculously generic, though — from the characters to the action and cinematography. However, whether he is seated in a chair or chasing after bad guys, Neeson is alluring. He is no Tom Cruise, upping the ante with each project; Neeson is far too comfortable within this well-oiled machine he has fostered with this slate of films. When you spot Neeson on a movie poster or catch a glimpse of him in a movie trailer, you just know that whatever it may be it will be generic as hell, but that Neeson will be, at the very least, entertaining — and reliable — to watch. With Retribution, you are watching Neeson as much as you are watching the action unfold. Here he has to use his face and eyes a bit more than usual, and you catch glimpses of the great action hero he once was.
Retribution is comically familiar, yet that familiarity breeds a sense of comfort for the average movie watcher who wants something not too complicated or tedious. A theatrical release seems slightly too optimistic, but Neeson loyalists will have a good time with it. There is nothing offensively wrong with it. The directing and acting are sturdy, which is all one can expect and hope for.
Retribution is now playing in theaters. It is 90 minutes long and rated R for some language and violence.