Stop us if you've heard this one. There's a bomb in a moving vehicle. If the driver gets out, it will explode. If the driver doesn't do exactly what a voice on the phone says, it will explode. Where Jan de Bont’s Speed is the Aston Martin of combustible transport thrillers, this rather more pedestrian take on automotive chaos is the 1989 Ford Cortina — complete with rust spots and a dickie wiper blade. A remake of 2015 Spanish-language film El Desconocido (Spanish for ‘Unknown’, another suitably generic thriller title but sadly one Neeson ticked off back in 2011), Retribution places Big Liam behind the wheel as reluctant father and absolute banker Matt Turner. Cajoled into bare-minimum parenting and forced to take his kids to school by long-suffering wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz, largely wasted), he climbs into the driving seat of his luxurious Mercedes SUV… and stays there for the next 85 minutes.
A call from a mysterious handset stashed in the car puts Turner in contact with a sinister voice (digitally altered to sound halfway between Jigsaw and Ghostface), who informs him that failure to go to a series of waypoints in a timely fashion will result in the wrong kind of family barbecue. Cue a run-of-the-Mills action thriller like those we’ve come to expect from Neeson’s post-Taken oeuvre, crossed with a YouTube Waze tutorial as Matt drives from point to point, furthering his tormentor’s plan while getting increasingly stroppy with teenage son Zach (Jack Champion) and young daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell).
Turner's state of high anxiety rarely translates to actual on-screen excitement.
Gravel-toned and glowering, 71-year-old Neeson is as dependable as ever, but has little to work with from a screenplay that saddles him with perfunctory dialogue while never allowing him to actually get up off his arse. Steven Knight’s Locke demonstrated that it’s possible to wring gallons of drama from little more than a stressed-out driver and a hands-free set, but there’s nowhere near enough character here to pull off the same trick — even when things periodically explode.
Director Nimród Antal (Predators) makes the most of the film’s Berlin setting, which lends the streets some visual interest, and successfully harnesses the ratcheting stress of Turner's situation (juggling two impatient kids whinging about the journey as well as a homicidal terrorist is more than most parents could be expected to handle with grace). But beyond a few high-speed scrapes with hapless German police, there's little here in the way of spectacle and Turner's state of high anxiety rarely translates to actual on-screen excitement.
At a brisk 90 minutes, the film keeps its storytelling economical, but with a hero unable to actually leave his car and a twist that even Turner’s eight-year-old could see coming, this trip stalls before it ever gets out of the driveway.