Another Liam Neeson action-thriller scores points for adrenaline-filled tension, if not originality, playing a dad trapped in a car with his kids as a faceless killer threatens to blow them up.
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For actors and actresses with long careers, it’s always fascinating how their screen persona evolves over time. Some don’t — John Wayne was the same tough cowpoke in his last picture as he was in his first — but most long-timers see a shift in how studios and audiences see them as they get older.
I’m not sure anyone had Liam Neeson on their bingo card in the “kick-butt geezer” mode he’s enjoyed for the last 15 years, beginning with “Taken” and its various official and non-official sequels. It’s become his cinematic signature, playing seemingly ordinary men with deadly abilities who take on hordes of evildoers, especially those threatening his loved ones.
“Retribution” fits into this mold, with some variations. He plays Matt Turner, a partner with a hedge fund group operating out of Berlin. His particular set of skills centers not around assassination and intimidation, but persuasion and confidence-boosting. Early on he’s called upon to talk down a major investor who wants to pull his money out.
Almost the entirety of the movie takes place inside his car as Matt is driving his kids to school and a mysterious caller threatens to blow them up with a bomb he’s planted under the seat. He’s already killed one of Matt’s partners and targets the rest of them unless Matt follows his bizarre instructions, driving all over town, forcing others to meet with him, etc.
It seems like the killer has a serious grudge against Matt and has put a lot of thought into torturing him, and we begin to wonder if there’s some merit to it. Hedge funds are not exactly factories of altruism, so maybe he’s financing some nasty global operators or embezzling from retirement accounts.
Certainly his partner and best friend, Anders (Matthew Modine), seems like a typical shark of finance, more concerned with keeping the dollars rolling in than any good they do with them.
And it’s clear Matt has been, at best, an indifferent husband and father. His wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz), seems at the end of her rope, having to plead with Matt to take the kids to school because she has an important appointment.
His teen son, Zach (Jack Champion), is a typical snot-nose who wants to ditch school, carouse with his girlfriend and act more grown-up than he is. Daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell), who I’m guessing is 11 or 12, resents being the overlooked member of the family and takes every opportunity to snitch on or stick it to her brother.
When the call first comes in during their drive, Matt doesn’t know what to make of the older phone with a cracked screen tucked into his console. It isn’t his or his wife’s, but he answers it anyway. The digitally disguised voice starts barking threats and orders.
At first Matt doesn’t take it seriously and tries to hide the conversation from his children. But very soon the danger becomes very real, and it launches a bonanza of chase-chase and boom-boom that will drive the rest of the movie.
Of course, the authorities eventually become involved, with Noma Dumezweni playing the lead cop on the case. Whoever the voice is, their goal seems to be not just kill Matt but destroy him, implicating him as the perpetrator of all these crimes.
“Retribution” is a remake of a 2015 Spanish thriller, unseen by me. Chris Salmanpour handled the screenplay adaptation, and director Nimród Antal (“Predators”) has a good feel for lean, tense scenarios in which it seems like violence could erupt any second.
Neeson is his usual stolid self, his character’s sense of vulnerability gradually churning into a ball of rage that he will unleash in the last act.
At 71, Neeson is challenging even Harrison Ford’s record to be a convincing action star at an advanced age. Though he looks more like 51, which I’d guess is right around where Matt is supposed to be, given his wife and kids’ ages.
(Plus, let’s face it, he does spend almost the entire movie sitting down. Saves the knees, that.)
“Retribution” isn’t terribly original or interesting, having seen countless iterations of the faceless killer making threats over the phone. But it’s an undeniably effective thriller, 90 minutes of pure adrenaline that will keep audiences pumped.
If you want to call it a rut, it’s one Neesom continues to milk skillfully.