In “Retribution,” which could very well be the title of any Liam Neeson film from the past 15 years, the 71-year-old star is still a thin, towering oak tree of a man, but perhaps for the first time, he’s up against a force that challenges his somber masculinity. It’s referred to as an attempt to become a father in the 21st century.
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“Retribution”: Challenging Masculinity and Family Bonds in Liam Neeson’s Thriller
Neeson’s Matt Turner is a high-ranking banker/financier who lives in a lavish modernist glass house in Berlin with his wife and two children. Neeson has often played the role of a devoted father – it was the bedrock of “Taken,” which kickstarted the Liam Neeson-style of action in 2008. (“Death Wish,” the 1974 Charles Bronson thriller that’s one part stone-cold vengeance, one part reverence for family, how democratic!)
But in “Retribution,” Matt doesn’t get any respect from his teenage daughter, Emily (Lili Aspell), or his rebellious adolescent son, Jaich (Jack Champion). Because, as the film presents it, the culture around him has stripped him of his authority. He can’t make laws the way his father could; the harder he tries, the more ineffective he becomes. He’s a master of the universe, self-possessed to a fault, but as irrelevant as absent fatherhood.
On this particular morning, he’s taking his kids to school, and he’s so low on power that he has to coerce the reluctant Jaich into sitting in the car with him. It’s a Mercedes SUV (worth 100,000 euros, easily affordable for Matt the high-roller). The car, like the house, is a fortress of safety. Not today, though. As he starts driving, Matt’s cell phone starts ringing, tucked somewhere under the seat, playing the ringtone of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He answers the phone, and on the other end is one of those electronically altered voices, a bit too sinister for comfort, like a witness in hiding from America’s Most Wanted serial killer.
The Terrifying Demand
The voice brings grave news for Matt. There’s a bomb in the car, placed right under the driver’s seat. Should Matt manage to escape, the vehicle is poised to detonate. If his kids get out, or if he does anything other than follow the voice’s orders, the car will explode. (The bomber has a detonator and can clearly see and track everything Matt is doing and where the car is going.)
What does the bomber want? He comes across a bit like an ara, a cognitive quality that fuels “saw” movies, creating a disturbing poetry of power. His sole intent is to ensure that Matt faces the consequences of his transgressions. We see that Matt, the investment player, is set up (it’s on the news), so we know the attacker is serious. And when he orders Matt to keep driving, and it becomes evident that the entire film will take place in the car, you might get a flicker of those old summer-movie hopes, an echo of bygone memories. Is “Retribution” about to “speed” into Mercedes family SUV “fury”?
“Speed” certainly was the “Citizen Kane” of vehicle-trapped action films, a bus ride from hell that turned blockbuster clarity into nervous verse. But there’s a whole genre of films, inspired by “Speed” (or close to it), where heroes trapped in a confined setting, armed under the gun, enact action scenes: a car, a phone booth, a coffin. “Retribution” persuades you that every moment was indeed happening (that was its genius), but the sub-“Speed” style is one where you say, “Okay, I didn’t exactly buy it, but I’ll play along.”
Elegantly Propelled Action
“Retribution,” a remake of the 2015 Spanish action thriller “El Desconocido,” keeps you hooked with its elegant premise and propels the action with its lurking questions: What does the bomber want? What has Matt done to deserve this? And how will he get out of it? The film is 90 minutes long. When we learn, a little later on, that Matt is being set up – accused of executive malfeasance – the stakes land, though perhaps “Retribution” didn’t need them. I’ll be happy to see that Liam Neeson was caught in a rational dilemma with the bomber, sort of a blend between “Speed” and Tom Hardy’s film “Lock,” which sometimes intersects.
Neeson’s calling card, at least in recent years, has been his brutal, concise, I’ll-kill-you-if-you-touch-me toughness, but in “Retribution,” he’s pushed into vulnerability. When the bomber orders him to summon his wife, Heidrun (Embeth Davidtz), so she can go to a bank and open her hidden security-deposit box, he learns she’s headed to a divorce lawyer. Talk about bad timing! Neeson, unlike most other action stars, is an actor who can show you the despair in Matt, as everything is piling on. He’s not trying to fight the attacker – he’s trying to outwit him. He’s the protector we’ve seen, now the unseemly Neeson emerges. Without a doubt, the Neeson we’ve paid to see.
Fighting Back and Family Redemption
An important turn comes when Matt is caught in a heavy police checkpoint. From that point, it’s a regular, reliably unbelievable-yet-who-cares Neeson action movie. The memory of “Speed” fades. It’s not a bad thing to say that Neeson confronts his enemies, but his true victory is to win back his strength in the eyes of his family. The film echoes what these movies have always said: contemporary domestic life may have little room for those who will protect us – but once we’ve disposed of them, we need them most. So, Liam Neeson will return for another day of fighting.