Wholly possible that it was a script kicking around since the mid-2000s pitched as “Speed meets Phone Booth” with a few hence-added references to “the dark web” and “crypto accounts,” the new Liam Neeson thriller Retribution likely won’t surprise anyone. It’s at least notable for bearing the return of sturdy journeyman Nimrod Antal to English-language thrillers (Neeson’s go-to director Jaume Collet-Serra serves instead as producer this time), and certainly shows a more competent hand behind the camera than that of the Blacklight variety.
This time we see Neeson as the generically named Matt Turner, an American businessman or hedge fund guy or something of that ilk (his boss played by Matthew Modine calls him “a credit to capitalism”) living in a modernist Berlin house with his family. Though home life is strained in virtually every arena; disconnected from his moody son Zach (Jack Champion, who you’ll remember as the craziest white boy to ever do it, Spider, in Avatar: The Way of Water) and phone-addicted daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell), not to mention seemingly headed for divorce with his harried wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz, marking a Schindler’s List reunion). Perhaps this is all the result of him being too much of a workaholic?
The action-thriller mechanics soon kick into gear though when, driving his children to school, Matt receives a phone call from a modulated, unidentifiable voice demanding he follow his every command or a bomb inside his car will explode. All involving the nefarious side of his job, with accounts needing to be liquidated and such, soon the stakes of his personal and work lives will intersect, plenty of exploding cars along the way.
What at least sets Retribution apart is the reluctance of Neeson’s character throughout. Never throwing a punch or firing a gun at anyone, the actor seems to be settling into his age, even though at 70 he’s still playing a father to teenagers (representation for all the late-in-life dads out there who should be grandpas instead). The director and cinematographer get a lot of mileage out of the car’s rearview mirror; Neeson’s darting eyes constantly looking into it or the POV of his two dear children framed side-by-side, reminding him of what he’s really living for. The latter material is some of the weaker stuff herein, with it manifesting into a strangely sentimental ending––a note that made me literally laugh out loud, and which disrupts the steady tone.
Likewise, Retribution’s generic-if-fun setup maybe doesn’t allow for a heap of great setpieces. It’s vaguely surprising this is a theatrical release when its scope is closer to a Grindstone Entertainment Group production. Yet also efficient enough that you don’t really care, and proof Nimrod Antal has pulled off an invisible achievement-of-sorts. For boasting a gray color palette, mostly being limited to the inside of a car, and hinging on an inevitably stupid plot twist, that I don’t come away from the film bored by it is proof of some kind of directorial skill.
Retribution opens on Friday, August 25.