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Retribution review: Liam Neeson hits the gas

Watching 71-year-old Neeson kick butt behind the wheel makes for a fun ride, even if this thriller is just riffing on Speed

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Liam Neeson in Retribution
Liam Neeson in Retribution
Image: Lionsgate

For audiences who like seeing 71-year-old Liam Neeson do action stuff but find it just a touch unconvincing when he punches out bad guys twice his size and half his age, Retribution may be just the ticket. Sticking him behind the wheel of a car for most of the film’s running time, this script allows him to cause mayhem and destruction without straying from his seated position, and prove there’s sometimes nothing scarier than a senior citizen with a motor vehicle.

He gets in a couple of punches first, the loud, cracking kind that make noises you only ever hear in a movie, but the only victim is a workout bag. In another movie, this might be foreshadowing; here, it feels like a contractual obligation, as if his deal required him getting to land at least a few haymakers, somewhere, anywhere. Nothing about this one specifies that he was ever any kind of badass, though. Instead, his Matt Turner seems to be a financial scammer who’s also a bit of a coward, afraid to give anyone bad news. He’s also a guy with an unfortunate, unpredictable work schedule, which, as any regular moviegoer knows, makes him Hollywood’s version of the worst husband and father of all time, because he sometimes has to cancel other things in order to keep making a living and supporting them.


Ironically, it’s an attempt to do better that screws him over, because on the one day he manages to drive his kids to school, an anonymous phone call tells him there are pressure-plate bombs under the seats, and if anyone exits the vehicle, the whole car will blow up. To survive, he’ll have to carry out a series of tasks a la Die Hard With A Vengeance, 12 Rounds, and the Saw sequels, all by way of Speed. The voice on the phone, heavily distorted, apparently has eyes everywhere and can see into the car as well, though whoever it is cannot hear anything in the car if Matt mutes the phone, something he can only get away with briefly lest it be noticed.


By its nature, this is a story that literally keeps things moving, so even if you take a moment to think some aspect of the villain’s plan is preposterous, there’s no time to linger on it before the next obstacle. Indeed, once all is revealed and we get a chance to think about it, it seems clear that the plan was needlessly convoluted to get where it needed to go. Unless we presume—as we have some evidence to—that the point of the convolutions was to excessively torture Matt.

On that note, the title suggests that the movie is all about payback for what our hero goes through. We won’t spoil what happens but the ratio of psychological torture to emotional catharsis feels a touch uneven on that score. In light of this, it’s worth noting that the 2015 Spanish film upon which Retribution is based is actually titled El Desconocido (The Stranger).

That balance aside, director Nimród Antal keeps the pace steady, even when the car has to stop for a while—urban chase scenes are his forte, after all, in movies like Kontroll and Metallica: Through The Never. While a more ambitious movie like Predators occasionally showed a bigger future for Antal than a small-scale action thriller like this, there’s no denying he’s good in his groove.

Retribution (2023) Official Trailer – Liam Neeson

Playing Neeson’s kids are superheroes-in-training Lily Aspell (Wonder Woman 1984) and Jack Champion (Avatar: The Way Of Water), and considering the movie lives or dies based on their three-way interactions, it’s a good thing they’re up to it. As Matt tries and eventually fails to hide the gravity of the situation from his kids, they rise to the situation—and out of their own bratty natures—in the way that kids who want to be brave do. When they first come onscreen, they’re irritating enough that one might hope Matt will punish them; by the time things are done, we understand why he’d risk everything for them. Any parent can play that role, but younger actors who earn that level of emotional performance with their own in return are rare.


Never once do they ask, “Are we there yet?” and with luck, neither will you, as Antal and writer Chris Salmanpour dole out the plot points apace like so many hard candies to tide over anxious riders. Unlike Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, what you’re going to get from this box of travel sweets is usually something you can expect. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be effectively tasty in the moment.

Retribution opens in theaters on August 25.