Review by Daniel Lima
Following the latter-day career of Liam Neeson is an arduous task, requiring a sturdy constitution. It’s not simply that he’s prolific — though with four projects awaiting release and four more in pre-production, that is certainly true. What makes keeping up with him such a dire prospect is the amount of interchangeable, anonymous thrillers he tends to headline, each new entry in the ignoble canon promising an endurance test. His latest film Retribution, while not quite a breath of fresh air, at least offers a certain novel charm that sets it apart from the worst of his body of work.
Neeson plays a well-off financier who lives for his work, to the detriment of his family. While driving his teenage son and young daughter to school, he receives a call from a man claiming a bomb has been installed in his car. With no other option, the neglectful father is forced to follow the unknown caller’s every command, buying time until he can figure out how to keep his family safe.
On the surface, it seems like a premise designed to produce the lowest-effort thriller possible. It asks nothing of its aging star beyond sitting down and turning a steering wheel. It has an incredibly limited cast and set of locations, and it doesn’t call for the same amount of action as any of Neeson’s previous films. The only promising facts in its favor are that it is a remake of a well-received Spanish film, and that Jaume Collet-Serra — an auteur that has always brought the best out of Neeson — has a producer credit. The best case scenario for Retribution is a no-frills thriller with zero pretensions beyond keeping the audience on the hook for its ninety minute runtime.
To the credit of director Nimród Antal and screenwriter Chris Salmanpour, they understood the assignment. There is precious little prelude, with the film rushing forward to get to its high-concept premise. From the moment Neeson settles into the driver’s seat, and the bomb underneath him is shown to arm itself, it is clear Antal has an understanding of how to generate tension within a scene. While there is no big action set piece per sé, every interaction with the maleficent mystery caller has a palpable sense of danger, a charge that makes those scenes work in spite of the inherent ridiculousness.
That's not to say the ridiculous quality is a bad thing. At first, one might cringe at the awkward, unnatural dialogue these actors bark out — dialogue that forces them to give stilted performances in turn. Bane quickly turns to boon, however, as all the strange lines and even stranger delivery cultivate an atmosphere reminiscent of the low-budget pulp of decades past. From the unknown caller's snark to out-of-nowhere silly lines from the kids during lulls in the action, this film is funnier than most comedies, granting it a personality most modern thrillers of this sort lack. It all culminates in a final confrontation that is some of the best scenes in the year, as the villain revels in his evil in glorious fashion.
All that said, there are far too many lulls in the action. Antal may do a good job handling tension in the moment, but he lacks the ability to maintain the narrative drive that Collet-Serra’s collaborations with Neeson have displayed. This is most egregious towards the end of the film, when the plot literally grinds to a halt, allowing all that momentum to evaporate over the course of nearly fifteen agonizing minutes. There is also a lack of visual flair, with only a handful of shots more complicated than a closeup of Neeson driving, as well as a remarkably drab palette. These may simply be a consequence of keeping production costs down, but the result is a work less rich than it could have been.
This is especially notable in the structure of the narrative. As commendable as the lean story is, it doesn’t take much imagination to think up changes that might have made for something deeper and more meaningful. A bit more character work could have made for more involving family drama; some timed challenges from the caller could have introduced more thrilling set pieces; a darker edge to Neeson’s character — hinted at in the film — might have offered some sharp social commentary. Reading a synopsis of the original film, whose runtime is only six minutes longer than Retribution, it seems that these are all considerations made there. Why this script adapted those elements out, only to replace it with obvious filler, is truly baffling.
It’s a bit telling that the star himself is almost an afterthought when discussing this film. While there’s little material to go off, this is admittedly far from Neeson’s best work, leaving him just as off-putting as the rest of the ensemble. In a way, it almost works in his favor, as whether it’s dealing with a mad bomber or being a good dad, the character is reckoning with a situation he is utterly unprepared for. Then there are the moments where, against all odds, Neeson is able to wring actual pathos out of a scene where he’s acting against absolutely no one at all. There is a reason he’s able to consistently headline three movies a year, even if they tend to be of questionable quality.
As for Retribution, this is a perfectly serviceable thriller, albeit one with tantalizing hints at something more. Though bereft of the kind of ingenuity that would put this among the top of the Neeson oeuvre, this stands far above the dregs of his recent past. Sight unseen, however, one may be better served looking to the Spanish original for something truly exhilarating.
Retribution hits theaters August 25.