Car-Based Thriller Retribution Is Just Another One of “Those Liam Neeson Movies”

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Car-Based Thriller Retribution Is Just Another One of “Those Liam Neeson Movies”

While watching Retribution—the newest VOD-sheen action thriller in which an increasingly aged Liam Neeson has to save, or get revenge on behalf of, his children—I tried to remember the last time Neeson wasn’t in one of these movies. I don’t actually watch them, or really very many Neeson vehicles, but when I saw Neeson had yet another coming down the pipeline I thought, sure, why not; let’s give it a whirl. I then realized during my viewing that Neeson’s name has become so mockingly synonymous with these types of mid-to-low-budget, factory-made action hero revenge flicks that one nearly forgets he once played the Schindler of Schindler’s List, or the bereaved single father of Love, Actually, or Vallon in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—but not Qui-Gon Jinn, though. Everyone remembers Qui-Gon Jinn. 

Meanwhile, Neeson’s heart and soul seems quite happily attached to making a certain kind of film, with one more set to debut at this year’s Venice International Film Festival. There’s enough variation in his filmography—albeit, with wildly varying quality—to lead one to believe that, with no known ties to the “geezer teaser” scheme, perhaps he genuinely likes making these kinds of schlocky action pictures. That fondness, however, is not necessarily evident in Retribution.

A remake of a Spanish thriller (El Desconocido), Retribution sees a worn, 71-year-old Neeson put on a passive American accent as a workaholic Big Businessman father (“You’re a credit to capitalism,” is a real line of dialogue said to him by Oppenheimer’s own Matthew Modine) who, along with his two teen children, is held hostage by a bomb planted in his car. It is immediately odd to see Neeson playing dad to two young actors (Jack Champion of Avatar: The Way of Water, and Lilly Aspell) who could more believably be his grandchildren. It’s as if Neeson is attempting to maintain the same schtick from Taken, with the children remaining the same age despite his own age ever trudging onward (there’s a twisted Dazed & Confused joke someone could make here). It is a workaround refutation of his mortality without the use of de-aging CGI.

In his unethical approach to his job, Matt Turner (Neeson) has upset someone along the way, becoming imprisoned in his own vehicle while driving his kids, Zack (Champion) and Emily (Aspell), to school. Turner receives a voice-altered call a la Jigsaw that someone wants to play a game with him: There’s a pressure-triggered bomb under his car seat that will go off if anyone in the car leaves and alters the weight of the vehicle. 

In order to protect himself and his children—a convoluted way to ultimately redeem himself as an absent father and husband—Turner is forced to do the caller’s bidding, which essentially sets Turner up as the patsy mastermind behind a slew of other bombings and crimes as he drives around frantically somewhere in Germany. This implicates his associates, played by Modine and Arian Moayed, along with Turner’s wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz). There is an unintentionally hilarious scene in which Turner desperately attempts to reach Heather at the behest of the caller and learns that she is currently in the process of speaking with her divorce attorney—a revelation which incites more distress in his children than the very real potential imminence of their own deaths. 

Directed by Nimród Antal (whose credits include Predators, Vacancy and episodes of Stranger Things, Wayward Pines and Servant), Retribution is wholly uninspired, generic and derivative—the latter an accusation that got thrown at the still far more warmly received original. Retribution rests on a simple, high-concept premise that makes for a taut and potentially inspired 90-minute thriller, and while Antal’s adaptation is taut and is only 90 minutes, it’s as technically, visually and narratively lethargic as its star. 

Just as Liam Neeson isn’t really “there” in this film, Turner hasn’t “been there” for his wife and children—a familiar line of fictional family tension established by the Turners’ hostile morning prior to the life-or-death predicament. This opening sequence also features an equally familiar strained-marriage mirror conversation between Turner and Heather, edited to disorient the visual continuity but also prepare you for the disappointing and lackadaisical ensuing 80 minutes. Retribution is all so very familiar that your guess as to the identity of the caller is probably correct—mine was!

Many in or adjacent to the film industry opine the death of the mid-budget film, and Retribution, having been allegedly made on a budget of $62 million, could certainly be a marker for the depressing situation that those films appear to be in in 2023. But Retribution is such a nothing of a film that it is all much less interesting than the trajectory of its star. As an outsider looking in, I do recall that there was a time before Taken and its predecessors seemed to largely define the Irish actor’s career, save for the odd Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature, Men in Black: International or, most recently, Marlowe. But I had nearly forgotten that only five years ago, Neeson had roles in both the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Steve McQueen’s Widows in 2018 before returning to titles like The Marksman and Cold Pursuit and The Ice Road and Cold Storage. (Why is he always so cold?? Brrr!!!) Two years prior to that, he had done a second Scorsese collaboration with the devastating Silence in 2016.

Neeson has become aligned with these Taken offspring, yet in my mind he still doesn’t embody the persona of an action star: He remains the quiet, grief-stricken stepfather to Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love, Actually. Perhaps that’s more of a “me” problem for not being more intimately familiar with Neeson’s body of work. It’s not like he isn’t still making those gentler kinds of films, such as Ordinary Love (2019) and Made in Italy (2020). But watching Retribution, I was keenly aware of how, particularly at 71, Neeson’s gravelly brogue and measured demeanor are at odds with the film’s frantic state. He seems so ill-suited for action heroism, maybe it was a relief that he just got to sit in a car for this one. Yet the dearth of schmaltzy Ordinary Loves and the breadth of Retributions could mark Neeson’s attempts to cheat death: If he can keep saving his teen children from bad guys, maybe he can live forever.

Director: Nimród Antal
Writer: Chris Salmanpour
Starring: Liam Neeson, Noma Dumezweni, Lilly Aspell, Jack Champion, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Modine
Release Date: August 25, 2023

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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