Liam Neeson in Retribution (2023)

‘Retribution’ movie review: Liam Neeson stars in ‘Phone Booth’ in a car

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A father driving his kids to school becomes the target of an unusual bomb threat in the unimaginatively-titled Retribution, opening in Prague cinemas and worldwide this weekend. This third remake of the 2015 Spanish film El desconocido, and second to be set in Germany, isn’t exactly original, but it’s a slick and well-executed thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat… for about 60 minutes, anyway.

Thirty years after Liam Neeson and Embeth Davidtz starred opposite each other in Schindler’s List, Retribution reteams them as an expat couple raising a pair of children – older teen Zach (Avatar: The Way of Water‘s Jack Champion) and younger sister Emily (Lilly Aspell) – in Berlin’s upscale Tiergarten district.

Retribution‘s banal first fifteen gets us up to speed on the family dynamics: Neeson’s financial planner Matt Turner has lost the faith of wife Heather, who questions his commitment to his family, and the respect of his two kids, who he can barely wrangle into his Merceds SUV to drive to school. He’s also lost the confidence of his clients after some recent stock market losses, though he’s able to talk (or lie, as Zach puts it) his way into securing a deal over the phone.

But Retribution wastes little time before it kicks into high gear: when Matt answers a call from an unknown phone hidden in his center console, he’s informed that there are weight-triggered bombs hidden under the car’s seats — and the family armed them when they sat down.

The bomber, who uses the same kind of voice modulation as Jigsaw from the Saw movies, also tells Matt that he can trigger the detonation remotely; and proves his point by having Matt drive by a colleague (Arian Moayed) just before his car goes boom.

Who the bomber is and what he wants aren’t clear, but he leads Matt and the kids on a wild goose chase around Berlin and into encounters with Heather, Matt’s boss Anders (Matthew Modine), and an Interpol agent (Noma Dumezweni) trying to make sense of the rash of bombings across the city.

For a good hour of its running time, from when Matt picks up the phone until he pulls the SUV into a tunnel encounter with a bomb squad, Retribution is a solid white-knuckle thriller that keeps you glued to the screen and waiting with baited breath for what will happen next. If only the denouement could have kept up the ruse: the final fifteen minutes of Retribution are more than disappointing as the film heads into prototypical Liam Neeson action movie territory.

Neeson has made bank with this kind of high-concept thriller for the past 15 years now in the wake of the success of Taken, and this one is no different. Retribution is an engrossing paranoia thriller along the lines of Non-Stop or The Commuter for most of its running time, but lacks the kind of surprise payoff that would really make this thing work.

That’s a shame, because director Nimród Antal (Predators and Metallica: Through the Never), who worked on TV with M. Night Shyalaman on The Servant and Wayward Pines, is a great fit for this material, and the slick location filming through the streets of Berlin is first-rate stuff. You’d think that a story that has been made four times in the past eight years would have a satisfying resolution, but judging by this latest version, you’d be wrong.

Still, the high-concept premise of Retribution is engaging enough to keep you hooked for most of the running time, and while the movie may not warrant a trip to the cinema, this is perfect fare for some late-night streaming. If Die Hard on a bus became Speed, then this one is Speed in an SUV. Or perhaps more appropriately, given its running conversation with the bomber, Phone Booth in a car.

Retribution

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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