Review: Liam Neeson’s Latest Actioner, Retribution, Is Ultimately Stifled by Its Setting, Casting

I’m in no position to get all ageist on any actor, but casting 71-year-old (okay, maybe he was 70 when he actually filmed this movie) Liam Neeson as the father of a son in his late teens and a daughter that is maybe 13 actually distracted me as I watched Retribution, this quarter’s latest thriller/actioner starring Neeson. Despite all of the car chases and explosions featured here, Neeson’s greatest challenge is dealing with the huffy comebacks of a mopey emo teenage son (Jack Champion, who annoyed me just as much as the one human character, Spider, in the Avatar sequel) while he’s attempting to not get them all killed in the process.

Directed by Nimród Antal (Predators, Vacancy, several episodes of Stranger Things), Retribution is, in fact, not about a man with a special set of skills. Matt Turner (Neeson) is an investment banker with high-end clients dealing in millions of dollars per day. In the film’s opening, Turner’s boss/business partner (Matthew Modine) calls to alert him that one of their biggest clients is talking about pulling his business because the markets have taken a turn, and he implores Turner to call the client and “do your thing,” meaning sweet talk the guy into leaving things well enough alone. It’s something of a specialty, and when Turner is forced to make this call while driving his kids to school, the youngsters recognize lying when they hear it; they may be annoying, but they’re also smart.

Turner’s marriage is also rocky, and during the course of the film, he discovers his wife (Embeth Davidtz) is at an appointment with a divorce attorney. But none of this means much when he gets another call on a phone hidden in a compartment in his car, with a distorted voice on the other end telling him that there’s a bomb under his car that will go off if he attempts to leave the vehicle (or if the caller decides to manually detonate it). The voice's identity and motive aren’t entirely clear (although the fact that his voice is distorted should give us a hint that it’s someone we cross paths with during the course of the story), but for most of the film, the caller has Turner drive around the city of Berlin, placing him near other acts of terrorism, such as bombings that kill partners in Turner’s company, including Modine. With the kids (the daughter is played by Lilly Aspell, who played young Diana in the Wonder Woman films) trapped in the back seat, Turner has little choice but to look very guilty to security cameras that place him at all of these crime scenes, leading a lead investigator (Noma Dumezweni) to do everything in her power to stop Turner and get the kids away from him.

Retribution resembles a ticking-timebomb story, but we’re never quite sure what the endgame is or when the clock runs out exactly, which cuts down on the tension considerably. Also, if the caller’s desire for money has driven him to do this, why call so much attention to Turner when leading the police away from him would make more sense. As the film goes on, motives and methods of the caller make themselves more clear, but it doesn’t actually make the movie any better. If you’ve always wanted to watch Liam Neeson drive a car for 90 minutes, I suppose this could be the answer to your prayers, but I’ve seen this type of films before, where the protagonist is effectively chained to their surroundings, and they have to be something pretty special in order to generate any level of suspense, which this film does not do.

Director Antal is capable of generating tension and handling action sequences, but he feels stifled by an actor wrong for the role and a character whose life may not be worth rooting for in the end. Turner doesn’t turn out to be a bad man, but he certainly isn’t the most ethical, so I was okay with whatever the outcome of Retribution turned out to be. When you don’t have a horse in the race, you can admire the form but the results don’t change your life. A near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.