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For the last decade or so, Liam Neeson has been cranking out largely generic programmers that have no real reason to exist other than the hope that one might turn out to be another “Taken,” the 2008 thriller that became a massive worldwide hit and unexpectedly reinvented him as an action hero. I doubt I could name half of them without looking up Neeson’s IMDb—then again, I suspect the same goes for him.
However, the release earlier this year of Neil Jordan's “Marlowe,” in which he portrayed the legendary detective character Philip Marlowe, suggested Neeson was just as tired with a current filmography comparable to Charles Bronson’s in the '80s and wanted to do something different—even if the results did not work, Neeson was trying to do something worthy of his genuine talents. With his latest project, “Retribution,” whatever flickers of effort were on display in “Marlowe” have been ruthlessly snuffed out. Here is a film so devoid of thrills, excitement, or purpose that it seems to have been custom-made to play in empty multiplexes during the traditionally dead last weeks of summer.
This time around, Neeson plays Matt Turner, a Berlin-based investment banker whose workaholism has driven a wedge between him and his wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) and kids Zach (Jack Champion) and Emily (Lilly Aspell). Even on the day he ends up agreeing to drive the young ones to school, he spends half the ride talking down a nervous investor at the behest of his boss (Matthew Modine) so as not to lose their money. But before he can finally drop the kids off, another call comes in from a mystery phone left in the car. A disguised voice then informs him of a pressure-controlled bomb underneath his seat that he inadvertently triggered when he sat down and which will go off if he tries to exit the car. With his kids stuck in the back and the voice threatening to blow him up remotely if he lets anyone know of his plight or disobeys orders (making him watch a co-worker go boom to prove they aren’t joking), Matt is forced to drive around doing various tasks while trying to figure out who is doing this to him and why. Meanwhile, the police (led by Noma Dumezweni), convinced that he's the bomber, follow in hot pursuit.
Like a number of these recent Neeson action spectacles, "Retribution" is a remake of a foreign film—in fact, in what's perhaps the sole interesting thing about it, it's actually the third remake of the Spanish thriller of the same name (Dani de la Torre's "El desconocido") to emerge since that film debuted in 2015. I confess I haven’t seen any of the other permutations (which include the 2018 German take “Don’t. Get. Out!” or the 2021 South Korean version “Hard Hit”), but I can't imagine any of them were as utterly monotonous as this.
The screenplay for "Retribution" by Chris Salmanpour is so bereft of anything that might have given it some distinction; it feels like it was derived from a version of Mad Libs for writers hoping to develop the most formulaic scripts imaginable. None of the characters are particularly interesting or likable (the kids, in particular, are so annoying at times that few viewers would have begrudged Neeson’s character if he decided to pull over and stretch his legs for a few minutes). And director Nimród Antal handles the action beats in a resoundingly excitement-free manner; even the big twist in the final scenes is so crashingly obvious that virtually every audience member will have figured it out long before it's deployed.
If “Retribution” had been the kind of standard-issue VOD drag—the kind headlined by someone with a vaguely recognizable name whose career never quite panned out—I suppose that might have been easier with the complete chintziness "Retribution" demonstrates on virtually every level. But that's not the case here. When given material worthy of his talents, Neeson can still deliver strong and stirring performances, and Davidtz and Modine have also done impressive work in the past.
Antal is not exactly a slouch either—he did a very interesting 2003 film called “Control,” worked on a couple of episodes of “Stranger Things,” and I know people who will stand by such earlier features as “Vacancy” (2007), “Armored” (2009) and “Predators” (2010). These are all talented people working on "Retribution." I suppose it's a measure of their dogged professionalism (if not their taste in material) that they could drag themselves back to the set day after day, long after they must have known there was virtually no chance it would result in something even remotely passable.
“Retribution” is a dud destined to be erased from our cultural memory once it presumably departs theaters in a couple of weeks. According to the press release, the film promises “an immersive ticking clock thriller that straps audiences in for a high-octane ride of redemption and revenge.” It pretty much fails to deliver on all counts. Look, if you want to see a thriller remake starring Neeson that's worth your time this weekend, allow me to point you toward “Cold Pursuit,” in which Neeson plays a snowplow driver in a small Colorado town who uses his skills to destroy the drug ring that murdered his son. Although no masterpiece, it gave Neeson things to do, and the oddball combination of action, drama, and Coen Brothers-style dark humor made for sturdy B-movie entertainment. In comparison, “Retribution” seems even more of a complete waste of time, effort, and energy than it already is.
Now playing in theaters.
Liam Neeson as Matt Turner
Emily Kusche as Mila