In “Retribution,” which could be the title of almost any Liam Neeson film of the past 15 years, the 71-year-old star is still a lean, looming oak tree of a man, but for maybe the first time he’s up against a force that outpowers his sullen machismo. It’s called trying to be a daddy in the 21st century.
Neeson’s Matt Turner is a high-powered banker/financier who lives with his wife and two kids in a palatial modernist glass house in Berlin. Neeson has often played devoted fathers — that was the whole premise of “Taken,” which kicked off the Neeson-as-seething-roughneck-of-vengeance genre back in 2008. (“Death Wish,” the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller that’s one of the stone tablets of the genre, was all about angry payback rooted in the reverence for family. How Republican!)
But in “Retribution,” Matt gets no respect from his tween daughter, Emily (Lilly Aspell), or his arrogant teenage son, Zach (Jack Champion). The reason, as the movie presents it, is that the culture around him has leeched his authority away. He can’t “lay down the law” the way that dads used to; the more he tries, the more ineffectual he becomes. He’s the master of the universe as overly full of himself but verging-on-irrelevant patriarch.
On this particular morning, he’s taking his kids to school and has so little power over them that he has to force the lone wolf Zach to get into the car. It’s a Mercedes SUV (it cost 100,000 Euro, which Matt the high roller can easily afford). The car, like the house, is a protective fortress. Not today, though. As soon as he starts driving, Matt hears a cell phone, caught under the seat somewhere, with a ring tone of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” He answers the phone, and on the other end is one of those electronically altered low-register creep voices that makes the speaker sound like a hidden witness on “America’s Most Wanted” crossed with a serial killer.
The voice has grim news for Matt. There’s a bomb in the car, planted right under the driver’s seat. If Matt gets out, the car will explode. If his children get out, or if he does anything other than what the voice orders him to do, the car will explode. (The bomber has a detonator and can apparently see everything Matt is doing and track where the car is going.)
What does the bomber want? He sounds more than a bit like Jigsaw, the guilt-tripping psycho contraption virtuoso of the “Saw” films; he’s out to make Matt pay for his sins. We see an investment player just like Matt get blown up in his car (it’s on the TV news), so we know that the bomber is serious. And as he orders Matt to keep driving, and it becomes clear that the entire film is going to take place in that car, you may feel a twinge of nostalgia crossed with end-of-the-summer B-movie hope. Is “Retribution” going to be “Speed” in a Mercedes family SUV?
“Speed,” of course, was the “Citizen Kane” of stuck-on-a-vehicle action movies, a bus ride from hell that turned blockbuster blatancy into a jittery poem of force. But there’s a whole genre of movies, inspired by “Speed” (or that are close enough cousins to it), where under-the-gun heroes play out action scenarios in trapped settings: a car, a phone booth, a coffin. “Speed” made you believe every moment in it was really happening (that was its genius), but the sub-“Speed” genre is one where you think, “Okay, I didn’t quite buy that, but I’ll roll with it.”
“Retribution,” a remake of the 2015 Spanish action thriller “El Desconocido,” is like that. It hooks you with the finesse of its set-up, propelling the action with its underlying questions: What does the bomber want? What did Matt do to deserve this? And how will he get out of it? The film’s 90 minutes whiz by. When we learn, a short while in, that Matt is being set up — the killing of that other executive is being pinned in him — it ups the stakes, though maybe “Retribution” didn’t need that. I would have been happy to see the entire movie be Matt caught in a logistical duel of wits with the bomber, like a cross between “Speed” and the Tom Hardy movie “Locke,” which this one occasionally resembles.
Neeson’s calling card, at least in recent years, has been his sinewy, terse, I-will-kill-you toughness, but in “Retribution” he’s forced to be vulnerable. When the bomber orders Matt to call his wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz), so that she can go to a bank and open his secret safety-deposit box, he learns that at that moment she’s visiting a divorce lawyer. Talk about a bad day! Neeson, unlike almost any other action star, is a fulsome enough actor to show you Matt’s desperation, the way that this is all weighing on him. He’s not trying to fight the bomber — he’s trying to play ball. He’s on the phone with Heather, his colleagues, and a Europol agent. But when he’s brought face to face with his friend and financial partner Anders, played with layered gnarliness by Matthew Modine, and is forced to try and kill him, something in Matt snaps. We’ve been watching Liam Neeson the civilized protector; now the uncivilized Neeson comes out. He is, of course, the one we’ve paid to see.
The film takes a crucial turn when Matt is trapped by a massive police blockade. From that point on, it becomes a routinely overwrought and implausible-but-who-cares Neeson action movie. The memory of “Speed” dissipates. To say that Neeson faces down his enemies is no spoiler, but his real triumph is winning back his strength in the eyes of his family. The movie says what these movies have been saying forever: that contemporary domestic life scarcely has room anymore for the men who will protect us — but that just when we’ve written them off, we need them the most. That’s why Liam Neeson will be back to fight another day.