Liam Neeson has done so many variations on the “angry dad” action hero that we can start dividing those movies into sub-genres. The actor's latest, “Retribution,” slots alongside “Non-Stop” and “The Commuter” as one of his “angry dad has a bad day” entries. The plot is more stripped-down than usual, with the action mostly restricted to the confines of one vehicle, which has a pressure-sensitive bomb planted beneath its seats. (Heard that one before?) But Neeson has become such a pro at this that he can make a stressed-out guy in a wired-up car thrilling enough.
He plays Matt Turner, a Berlin-based businessman whose domestic life and precarious international transactions are collapsing around him. His two teenage kids, Zach (Jack Champion) and Emily (Lilly Aspell), are bickering brats who habitually block him out with their headphones. His wife, Heather (Embeth Davidtz), is pondering divorce. This is the worst possible time for Matt to get a call from an anonymous stranger telling him his car — with his children in the back seat — will explode if he doesn’t follow a set of convoluted and increasingly terrifying instructions.
It’s easy to see why filmmakers keep returning to this premise. ("Retribution" is based on a "Speed"-savvy 2015 Spanish film that itself has already been remade twice before, in German and Korean.) The plot is a slickly efficient machine, generating anxiety and outrage. Throughout the movie we’re locked into the perspective of a flawed man who we know (in this case, anyway) is the innocent victim of some mysterious maniac. Yet as the day grinds on, Matt keeps getting tagged by the media as the desperate mastermind of a string of bombings, such that he draws the attention of a dogged Europol agent (Noma Dumezweni).
The script is too flatly functional, weighed down by periodic info dumps where various people try to explain how Matt’s floundering business might connect to his current predicament — where the retribution in “Retribution” may be coming from, in other words. Director Nimród Antal ("Vacancy") keeps the picture’s pace brisk, maintaining a sense of momentum by moving Matt’s car constantly through crowded streets. But even Antal can’t do much whenever the story runs headlong into another mind-numbing, jargon-filled monologue.
This is where having a Liam Neeson in the lead helps. Ultimately, the central mystery of who’s tormenting Matt doesn’t matter much. (Frankly, the answer is unsurprising.) Like most of Neeson’s action efforts, this one is more about an everyman on the edge, who was already about to snap before someone planted an explosive device under his rear end.
Inevitably, Matt gets pushed too far and turns the tables, looking for some retribution of his own — and giving the audience some satisfaction by proxy. That’s what movies like this one are for. While “Retribution” is far from Neeson’s best, it still mostly works, so long as you tune out the dialogue and focus on the hero’s twitchy face, waiting to see which will blow to smithereens first: his car or his patience.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.