This piece was published during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
As much as some have seemingly enjoyed Liam Neeson’s action-movie star era, it’s time for everyone to realize that none of his current efforts have been any good. Yes, even Taken. The only films that brilliantly utilized his action talents were his contributions to Jaume Collet-Serra. If not, most of his current filmography is a complete waste of time comparable to Charles Bronson in his Cannon Group era, churning out disposable action titles like 10 to Midnight, Assassination, and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects.
The more Neeson has made these films, the more they resemble Bronson’s Cannon filmography. And it’s understandable why he wants to do them: it’s easy money. Plus, the budget for these films is usually low, so it’ll almost guarantee decent enough box office returns for the studios to consider them a success. This time around, Neeson stars in a remake of Dani de la Torre’s El desconocido in Retribution. This movie mostly sticks to the original text of the 2015 Spanish film until it decides to veer off of it and almost tarnish the entire thing in the process.
Neeson stars as Matt Turner, a successful financier living a stable life with his wife (Embeth Davidtz) and children (Jack Champion & Lilly Aspell). However, he seems so involved in his work that he never makes time for his wife and kids. We meet him on the day he is supposed to take his children to school, which causes some tension between Matt and his wife since he has an important work call to make in the car. He reluctantly accepts and takes them to school. Everything seems to go fine until he receives a call from an unknown number, a man with a distorted voice telling him a pressurized bomb is under his seat and will blow up if anyone gets out.
Of course, the media and a bomb squad agent (Noma Dumezweni) believe Matt is the culprit, as he is seen discussing with his boss (Matthew Modine) and co-worker (Arian Moayed) suspiciously before their cars explode (before anyone yells spoiler, both deaths are shown in the trailer). The mysterious man wants an excessive amount of money out of him, which only Matt can give, but he must do so before he decides to explode his car, which would kill him and his children.
Those who have seen El desconocido will notice how faithful director Nimród Antal and screenwriter Chris Salmanpour adapt and translate the original film for an American audience. Most of the plot elements from the original are kept for its first and second acts, including the core conversation with the aforementioned agent, which was the best part of the 2015 film and is the best part of this film.
The action sequences are also shot skillfully and amplify the tension in the first act. There are a couple of neat car chases throughout the streets of Berlin, though they are bound to get repetitive at times. Still, Antal and cinematographer Flavio Labiano keep the suspense at a maximum, positioning their cameras on a car crane to follow Matt as he tries to evade the police.
That’s not a good thing to do, but he is listening to someone in his ear telling him exactly which “rules” to follow. And for the most part, the mounting anxiety works, especially when Matt sees his colleagues starting to die. The stakes elevate themselves naturally, with Neeson giving a memorable performance audiences hadn’t seen in a long time.
It’s been a while since Neeson seemed invested in a movie. Even the dud Marlowe, who attempted to see him do something different than his usual schtick of Bronson-esque movies, couldn’t be saved by Neeson’s lethargic portrayal of Phillip Marlowe. You can tell his energy isn’t invested in those movies anymore. They might have been when Taken was released, but the more he has done them, the less enthused he seems.
However, with Retribution, he actively seems to care about the film he’s in. His phone calls with his wife are powerfully delivered, and he shares great chemistry with his children. Once he realizes a bomb is in his car, his performance shifts immediately, and his body language gets more agitated and nervous. This allows audiences to enter his psyche and engage in the journey through his eyes, knowing that his life and children are on the line. All of these elements in his performance work tremendously well, and it’s great to see Neeson give a damn for once.
And just as the film gets comfortable following El desconicido [almost] to the letter, it decides to throw in the most inane plot twist of any film released in 2023. In the original movie, the protagonist is targeted by a client who lost money after they agreed on a bad deal that pushed his wife to suicide. In the remake, it’s not a former client of his (though it strongly implies that it is throughout the runtime) but something crazier that not even de la Torre and screenwriter Alberto Marini could’ve ever come up with in the original film.
Suffice it to say that the twist doesn’t land and raises far more questions than answers. From a purely logistical point of view, it makes no sense. But as it unpeels itself, it makes even less sense because the film never implied that it would bring it to this conclusion. Fully knowing this reveal is wrong, the film attempts to end itself far too quickly for its own good with an abrupt cut to black that feels more insulting than rewarding.
As a result, Retribution can’t, unfortunately, match the anxiety-riddled action and taut structure of El desconocido, despite a passionate performance from Liam Neeson. There’s still hope that his next movie will be worth something, as the craftsmanship in building out its action scenes and visual language is far more refined than in his previous efforts. The Michael Collins era of Neeson seems long gone in favor of quickly-produced films for a quick buck. But if the grind is successful for him, there’s nothing anyone can do but respect it.
Director: Nimrod Antal
Stars: Liam Neeson, Noma Dumezweni, Lilly Aspell, Jack Champion, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Modine, and Arian Moayed.
Runtime: 90 minutes
Country: France/Germany/Spain/United States