Retribution is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
In the fifteen years since Taken (2008) made him a bankable action star, Liam Neeson has starred in approximately 3,700 generic-looking action movies, all with generic sounding titles like Unknown, Non-Stop, The Marksman, Honest Thief, Blacklight, and Memory. The posters for these movies—look for yourself if you don't believe me—are completely interchangeable: They're all Liam with a gun, looking dour and determined at something out of frame. The plot descriptions sound equally ready made: Liam is an ex-spy/ex-assassin/ex-cop/ex-criminal, trying to put violence behind him, but forced to dust off his very particular set of skills when his shady past inevitably returns to threaten his wife/children/grandchildren/hamster. This isn't typecasting, it's cookie-cutter cloning.
To be clear, I haven't seen any of these movies. Maybe they're masterpieces (they're not), and as different as night and day (I doubt it). Those types of films were never my bag, and I've pretty much avoided Liam since his infamous 2019 interview, in which he told what he seemed to think was an educational story about how he once went searching the streets for a random Black man he could beat to death. (Call me a snowflake if you must, but when your entire brand is Angry-White-Man revenge fantasies, confessing to a youthful dalliance with lynching makes me look at your brand askance.)
So I haven't seen any of the products off Liam's Assembly Line of Indistinguishable Ass-Kicking, and I wouldn't have seen this latest one—with the equally forgettable, one-size-fits-all title Retribution—if it weren't for my summer movie marathon. I certainly wouldn't choose to write about it, and I can't honestly say I much want to do so now. So—for a refreshing change—I'm going to keep this fairly short.
Neeson plays Matt Turner, a wealthy banker/financial-something-or-other living in Germany, whose job—to the extent we see him do it—seems to be talking increasingly nervous investors into letting his firm continue to lose their money. He is, apparently, the best at it: "You're a credit to capitalism," his boss and partner Anders (Matthew Modine) tells him. However, on the home-front, his cooly distant wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) and his two neglected children—teen Zach (Jack Champion) and tween Emily (Lilly Aspell)—seem less satisfied with his performance. (I don't blame them. Neeson—who seems these days to have just the one acting mode—snarls at his family angrily through gritted teeth exactly as he snarls at terrorists in other movies.)
One morning, reluctantly driving the kids to school, Matt gets a phone call from a mysterious electronically-altered voice: There is a bomb in the car, the voice informs him, and it will detonate unless Matt and the kids stay in the car and do exactly what they're told. Matt is instructed to drive to various coordinates in Berlin, where he is present at a series of explosions that both show him the bomber means business and make it look (to the police) like Matt himself is responsible. A sinister cat-and-mouse game ensues, eventually revealing a nefarious plot and a sinister culprit.
Of the film itself, there is little more to say. Competently but prosaically directed by Nimród Antal—who was responsible for such previous derivative disappointments as Vacancy (2007) and Predators (2010)—Retribution is exactly the film you would imagine—if you bothered—from my brief, dismissive description. The film sustains a certain tension throughout, I suppose, but in a very pedestrian, predictable, "we know nothing bad will happen to the kids" sort of way. Nothing about the screenplay from first-time writer Chris Salmanpour is particularly new, or particularly exciting, or particularly smart. (To be fair, the "big twist" reveal will seem genuinely shocking and clever to anyone who found guessing the villain on Scooby Doo to be a weekly deductive challenge.)
So let's talk briefly about the two elements I did find interesting about Retribution, both somewhat tangential to the story on the screen. The first is how sadly tailored the film is to this moment in Neeson's career, for it is surely a sign that the assembly line of grim action movies is grinding to an inglorious halt. Neeson became an action star late, in his 50s, and he is 71-years-old now. (Apparently his character started having children late, too.) Maybe Tom Cruise will still be an action star in his 70s, but a normal, mortal human being is going to have to find different kinds of roles to play. Here, Neeson expands his repertoire a little—Matt is not an ex-anything, and he does not really have a particular set of skills—but otherwise the stuck-in-a-car scenario of Retribution makes it the perfect vehicle—pun intended—for Neeson to continue his macho protect-the-family franchise without actually having to move around too much.
The second notable element, related to the first, is that this should have been a more complex role, and a more interesting movie. The film is an American remake of a 2015 Spanish film called El desconocido. I've not seen El desconocido, but reading its synopsis it sounds like there was an actual purpose to it. In that original film, apparently, the banker was entirely shady, and (spoiler alert) the bomb plot was actually retribution for how he drove someone to suicide with deceptive investment advice that ruined their life. As the title suggests, that element is present in Retribution—we definitely understand that Matt's financial dealings are not completely above-board—but it turns out not to be the motivation for the plot, and Matt's sins are watered down so pathetically as to be almost incidental.
God forbid we interrupt generic chase scenes with a critique of capitalism, and God forbid we burden our protagonist with self-reflection, guilt, or actual consequences for his actions. (The way Retribution ends the second the action plot is resolved—without dealing with Matt's financial transgressions, his failings as a family man, or even his legal issues—is literally laughable.) Neeson apparently isn't ready to stop churning out sad wish-fulfillment fantasies in which he's the Heroic White Man who protects his Innocent White Family, but Retribution makes it clear it's past time to let that fantasy die.