THE STORY – While driving with his two kids, a man receives a phone call from an unknown assailant who claims there is a bomb in the car. Unable to exit the vehicle, he must now follow a series of twisted instructions while trying to figure out how to survive.
THE CAST – Liam Neeson, Noma Dumezweni, Lilly Aspell, Jack Champion, Embeth Davidtz & Matthew Modine
THE TEAM – Nimród Antal (Director) & Chris Salmanpour (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes
Some things in life will always be reliable. Just as we know the sun will rise every morning, each new day also brings yet another Liam Neeson action-thriller. It’s almost comical to look back at “Taken” and how a modest yet enticing piece of surface-level entertainment brought forth a deluge of mediocre schlock. In fairness, some outings have been better than others, but this subgenre of elder statesmen trying their hand at physicality has quickly grown quite tiresome. “Retribution” fits easily within this tapestry, so much so that even its generic title is interchangeable with many other entries in his filmography. While it has a handful of elements that attempt to separate it from the pack, the final results are indeed particularly lackluster.
This go-around, Neeson stars as Matt Turner, an affluent businessman living in Germany with his wife and children. The demanding stresses of the job have strained his personal life, and even as clients worry him about their own questionable financials, he makes a small attempt to give attention back. He plans on dropping his children off at school, but there are different plans in store for him. He receives a call, and a mysterious voice informs him that a bomb has been placed under his seat. Any attempt to flee will trigger the pressure-sensitive device and be detonated if his demands are unmet. It is now up to Turner to not only keep his family safe but unmask the dark forces that are taunting him every step of the way.
Even though Neeson’s presence may feel all too familiar for this kind of fare, he actually provides one of the few aspects that genuinely surprises. While most of his other roles tend to be that of hardened rogues who use their particular set of skills to dispose of bad guys effortlessly, Matt Turner is never played in such a register. Neeson allows himself to be vulnerable and scared, a far cry from a hero who is capable in every situation. It’s a minor flourish, but given the monotony of such characters in the past, it was refreshing to witness a somewhat grounded take. Even when he gains more confidence in the third act, it’s a more natural extension that doesn’t stretch too far into realms of unbelievability. It’s predictably the only performance of note, even though Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell hold their own well enough as the backseat hostages. They maintain a believable presence in wasted roles, something that Embeth Davidtz, as the suffering wife, struggles to overcome with such thin material.
Said material is also what director Nimród Antal attempts to elevate, but his efforts don’t do much to lift the film out of the low-energy zone it constantly inhabits. There isn’t much to be thrilled about here, with the execution of every tension-filled moment being the most basic, with the score, in particular, trying its hardest to overcompensate. Antal has made engrossing works in the past, but his contributions live only on the surface. One wonders what co-producer and previous Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra would have done, whose visual flare might have at least been a saving grace that is noticeably absent here.
The script from Christopher Salmanpour presents the most pedestrian of conflicts, whether that be vague familial drama that is supposed to be character development or the broadly defined facts that motivate the inciting incident. It’s a problem that this situation never really becomes all that believable in these ridiculous confines because of a poorly set up web of intrigue. The caller’s identity is also one that will most likely be quickly deduced by even a casual watcher, further riding any sense of maintained suspense. Ultimately, the narrative is never engaging, indulging in a sluggish momentum that is rarely captivating.
There was the slimmest of possibilities that “Retribution” could have been something better than many of its predecessors. It’s sadly not found in its banal storytelling, lethargic pacing, or shallow characters. Only in Neeson’s performance is there any innovation, one that dares to soften his image into a more grounded personality, which creates a more compelling connection. At the same time, this is not enough to override the tedium that surrounds him. The overall mechanics still feel tethered to a familiar structure that wrestles with elevating itself from the group. Despite its best efforts, another mediocre actioner has passed into this world, and one feels it will suffer the same fate of disappearing into obscurity with the rest.