Retribution (United States/Germany, 2023)August 25, 2023
When it comes to the annual Liam Neeson cash-grab, I have learned to temper my expectations. A guilty pleasure would seem to be an attainable goal, although those instances have been more the exception than the rule lately. The problem is that Neeson, unlike (for example) Nicolas Cage, has a tendency to take himself too seriously. He plays every role with the gravitas of Oskar Schindler and this transforms films with the potential to be campy fun into tedious slogs.
Based purely on a few-sentence summary of the premise, Retribution might seem to be just the kind of film to reverse Neeson’s B-movie slide. It sounds a little like Speed and, with the right director on board, it might offer a taut 90 minutes of nonsensical fun. Unfortunately, Nimrod Antal, despite a promising filmography, is jarringly out-of-synch with Neeson and the resulting film squanders what might have been. There are so many ways that this could have worked but none are adopted by the filmmakers. Instead, they opt for a dull, uninventive approach to the narrative that results in Neeson giving perhaps the worst extended performance of his career. Imagine the overacting he imbued Schindler with at the very end of Spielberg’s classic applied to an entire movie and it gives an approximation of what he’s doing in Retribution. Phoning it in would have been better.
For Retribution to work, the viewer has to be engaged. That’s why Speed, preposterous as it was, became a massive hit. We liked Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock and hated Dennis Hopper. Plus, few were better in that era than Jan de Bont in crafting high-tension action sequences. In Retribution, we don’t much care about any of the characters – they’re all uninteresting two-dimensional avatars of people – and Antal lacks the budget to do more than pay for a couple of explosions. Given the premise, it’s shocking that the movie offers so little in the way of excitement. It is a remake of a 2015 Spanish film (unseen by me) and, prior to this iteration, there have been German and South Korean versions – maybe some (or all) are better.
As the opening scenes illustrate, financial wheeler-dealer Matt Turner (Neeson) is the best at what he does – sweet-talking investors from pulling out of his firm’s funds even though they appear to be hemorrhaging money. One morning, while transporting his children, rebellious teen Zach (Jack Champion) and his younger sister, Emily (Lilly Aspell), to school, Matt receives a mysterious cell phone call informing him that there’s a bomb in the car and if either he or his kids attempt to exit, it will explode. The caller claims to be watching Matt and, if his instructions aren’t followed, he will remotely detonate the bomb. To prove that he means business, he blows up two other cars then sends Matt on what appears to be a wild goose chase that includes a meeting with his best friend and co-worker, Anders Muller (Matthew Modine), and involves his wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz, another Schindler vet). It doesn’t take long before the Berlin police start investigating and the officer in charge, Angela Brickman (Noma Dumezweni), initiates contact with Matt, who she believes to be a serial bomber. But, as long as cell phones are working, he can’t stop the car to talk to her, and he certainly can’t get out.
Retribution screams “direct-to-DVD” yet, for some reason, Lionsgate decided to release it into theaters. That probably has as much to do with the number of available auditoriums as it does with Neeson’s proven ability to attract viewers (something that has been diminishing ever since he abandoned the worn-out Taken franchise). I saw some of Bruce Willis’ late-career offerings that never sniffed a multiplex showing, and many were more watchable than this. I think the most shocking thing about Retribution isn’t that it lacks the capacity to engage but that the acting is so uniformly awful. It’s a sad statement to say that, in a movie that features Liam Neeson, Matthew Modine, and Embeth Davidtz, the best performance is given by 15-year old Lilly Aspell, whose previous biggest role was as Young Diana in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
The time has come to accept that Neeson, for whatever reason, has put his bank account ahead of his artistic aspirations. That’s his choice but it doesn’t make for a rewarding movie-going experience for anyone who has come to associate his name with a certain degree of quality. Retribution seems especially disappointing, however, because of its untapped potential to be cheesily entertaining. The finished product is so bad that I can’t even recommend it for viewing on a streaming service – somewhere it should land very quickly.
Retribution (United States/Germany, 2023)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Matthew Modine, Embeth Davidtz, Jack Champion, Lilly Aspell, Noma Dumezweni
Screenplay: Chris Salmanpour, based on the film written by Alberto Marini
Cinematography: Flavio Martinez Labiano
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate