Time for a career re-think, or at least a change of pace, for Liam Neeson. Once a powerful, appealing and versatile stage actor in both London and New York (I’ll never forget his galvanizing portrayal of Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss on Broadway), he rocketed to movie stardom in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The rest, as they say on Hollywood Boulevard, is history, but now, at 71, he’s been playing lockjawed stock characters in forgettable formulaic thrillers so long he can do it in his sleep. Which is exactly what he does in Retribution, another routine action programmer—doubly forgettable, because he does the whole thing sitting down.
RETRIBUTION ★★ (2/4 stars)
This time he’s an investment banker in Berlin named Matt Turner who lives in a fabulous glass house with his wife and two teenage kids. They’re all miserable. He’s been doing whatever he does for a living (it’s never clear) with such daily dedication that his wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) is secretly planning a divorce, his arrogant son Zack (Jack Champion) regards him with total hostility, and his neurotic daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell) has lost all respect for his parental authority. Reluctantly driving them to school one morning in his lavishly expensive Mercedes SUV, he receives an anonymous call on a cell phone hidden under the driver’s seat that rings to the tune of “Row Row Row Your Boat Gently Down the Stream.” The psycho with the low registered, electronically altered voice on the phone informs Matt there’s a bomb under the seat set to detonate if he or either of his two kids open the car’s doors or attempt to get out in any way, then blows up another car to prove his threats are serious. The voice instructs him to contact his wife, tell her to extract 50,000 euros from his bank deposit box, give the money to a stranger in a blue suit, and walk away.
The plan backfires, Heather is arrested by Europol, the voice ups the ante to 200 million euros, and Matt is forced to proceed to meet his boss and business partner (Matthew Modine) whose orders are to take the money from an “emergency collateral escape fund” or die in another car explosion. Thoroughly baffled, Matt protests, but everything he says or does poses another risk to his children’ lives. Neeson displays nerves of steel and although he’s nearing a nervous breakdown, he never breaks a sweat. Meanwhile, the movie grows more complex and convoluted with each scene, moving forward by the force of the questions it asks: Who belongs to the bomber voice? What did Matt do to deserve his retribution? How can he get out of it and save his kids’ lives without ever taking his hands off the steering wheel? The running time is padded with two obligatory car chases, various car bombings that kill other people, and assorted interferences by what looks like the entire Berlin police force.
The point finally arrives when you realize an initially interesting plot ceases to make much sense, the screenplay by Christopher Salmanpour is nothing more than a series of elaborate red herrings, and director Nimród Antal has nothing to do but increase the noise level and blow up as much of downtown Berlin as legally possible. The mass-murdering psycho turns out to be the film’s biggest surprise, but by the time his identity is revealed as someone who could have accessed the euros himself, the motives behind his bombs lose their sense of reason and the movie turns into a feel-good saga about how Neeson’s bravery regains his family’s love, respect and trust. No divorce at last, just the need for a new agent.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.