Those who understand the above reference are almost certainly pausing to pull up the remix on YouTube. For those blissfully unaware, allow me to sully your brains. Back in 1992, Sega released a home port of the side-scrolling science fiction shooter game, Zero Wing, which was popular in Japanese arcades in the late 80s. The introductory cutscene features the crew of a spaceship being attacked and mocked by the villainous CATS, as he gloats over their imminent destruction. The sequence became notorious, and heavily memed over the three decades since, for its extremely mishandled translation, including the infamous “All your base are belong to us,” “You have no chance to survive, make your time,” and the quote used in the headline (funnily enough despite the text reading “Somebody,” the digitized audio distinctly says “Someone”). Lots of video games had translation issues in the early console generations, but Zero Wing is arguably the most comically egregious.
I can think of nothing better to sum up the cyclone of suck that is Retribution. Directed by a literal Nimród (Antal), the film is an Americanized adaptation of the Spanish film, El Desconocido (which translates to The Stranger, but also uses Retribution as the English title), but completely and utterly misses the point and removes the meaning behind either interpretation of the name. Meanwhile, we get nonsensical action, not even an attempt at a coherent or logical plotline, and a half-assed ripoff of Speed.
Liam Neeson stars in yet another action thriller, this time as Matt Turner, an American hedge fund manager with a strong Irish brogue who somehow lives with his family in Germany. Sure. Why not? It’s not even the 100th dumbest thing in this movie. One morning, he awakes in his high-end glass house (seriously, floor to ceiling windows all around, bright white surfaces, and a lighting scheme that makes the house from Parasite look like a shotgun shack) and has a brief passive-aggressive argument with his wife (Embeth Davidtz) about him prioritizing his work over family and forgetting to take her to an appointment with her friend in favor of yet another business call from his boss, Anders (Matthew Modine). Resigned to his status as a bad husband and father (because why try any other angle for a redemption arc), Matt attempts to corral his feuding children, Emily (Lilly Aspell) and Zach (Jack Champion) to take them to school.
Once in the vehicle, Matt receives an anonymous phone call on a burner cell surreptitiously placed in his center console. After some confusion, a modulated voice informs Matt that there is a bomb under his seat. If he doesn’t do exactly what he’s told, the bomb will detonate. If he or anyone else tries to escape the car or inform the police, the bomb will detonate. With the dire warning that he’s being watched, the bomber orders Matt to drive all over the city and watch as his coworkers are killed in similarly planted automotive explosions. Matt’s proximity to the detonations gets the attention of international law enforcement, led by Angela Brickmann (Noma Dumezweni), who believes that Matt is the murderer, attempting to cover his tracks while embezzling millions from his company.
If all of this sounds like a boring retread, it is. Not only does it make absolutely no sense to do a Speed clone nearly 30 years after the original, but we’re also cribbing from Neeson’s own catalog, as Non-Stop also involved a terror plot in an enclosed mode of transport where he’s framed as the killer while he tries to suss out who the real culprit is. But even worse than the recycled framework is the fact that you’re casting Liam Neeson, the foremost middle-aged ass-kicker, in an action movie where he’s not allowed to move. Nothing says “excitement” like a man sitting down for 90 minutes, driving and occasionally talking to someone out the side window.
All of this can be forgiven to an extent if the story is compelling, but it’s just garbage, and it’s full of holes. This starts from the very beginning of the film, as when Matt and the kids leave the house, they go around the block to his car parked on the street. Why do I mention this? BECAUSE THERE’S A CAR IN HIS GARAGE THAT HE WALKS RIGHT PAST! Now, this could be his wife’s car, but she already left several minutes before, and there’s an empty space in said garage. Maybe you could convince me that she hasn’t pulled out yet, but that would require a bare minimum of direction to establish this fact, like, say, Matt or his children waving goodbye to her as they pass the car. But no, none of that happens, so we’re left to assume that Matt just so happens to ignore the car five feet from him in favor of the one that’s not even on his road, and THAT one is the one with a bomb in it, to say nothing of the idiocy of the fact that, if that other car did belong to wife Heather, THERE’S STILL AN EMPTY SPACE IN THE GARAGE FOR HIS CAR, SO THE ENTIRE MOVIE CAN’T HAPPEN UNLESS HE STUPIDLY PARKS ON THE STREET INSTEAD OF IN HIS OWN HOUSE!
It only gets worse. After the first call from the bomber, Matt decides to plug his earbuds into the burner phone, ostensibly to spare his kids the stress of what’s going on. However, he flat out tells them minutes later, and he never pulls the buds out, which would allow the children to hear the modulated voice, thus becoming corroborating witnesses when Matt pleads with Angela that he’s innocent. Instead, by leaving them in, it just looks like he’s talking to himself, and therefore nothing can be verified about the other half of the conversation, leading to several minutes of consternation to pad the runtime as we gloss over this very easy solution to establishing Matt’s status as victim rather than perpetrator. Similarly, the bomber keeps telling Matt that he’s being watched, and yet Matt thinks he’s getting one over on the guy by constantly muting the call so he can speak freely. However, if he is indeed being monitored, wouldn’t the killer be able to see that, and therefore threaten him? And if he can’t, shouldn’t Matt be able to deduce that maybe he isn’t actually under surveillance? I know his product placement Mercedes has a bunch of bells and whistles, but surely he’d think to look for a hidden camera while he’s feeling for the bomb (and somehow expertly photographing it with his phone despite not being able to see it), right?
Then, of course, there’s the villain’s plan. After several scenes of back-and-forth, with Matt trying to figure out how he might have wronged his would-be assassin to deserve this situation, the whole thing boils down to an emergency offshore account in Dubai that the killer wants him to transfer. No recipient account is mentioned, nor is there any discussion of the logistics of such a large transaction once the hedge fund’s assets are frozen by authorities. It’s mentioned that only Matt and Anders have access to the account, but there’s no directive for Matt to send the money into one of his own personal holds in a way that could ever truly implicate him in criminality. And of course, as to the mystery of who the killer is, it’s the classic case of it being the only person with whom Matt has any extended interaction outside of his family. The closest the movie comes to being fun is in how just about every character — Matt, the kids, Anders, Heather, and Angela — responds incredulously to the idea that this is just an elaborate robbery.
This is where the Zero Wing analogy comes into play. In the original Spanish film, the titular “stranger” is a former client of the protagonist, whose bad financial advice led to the killer’s wife committing suicide after being ruined. That’s a solid plot motivator, and it feeds into the idea of “retribution.” This person believes the main character deserves to be punished for his misdeeds. You know, the literal definition of the word.
There is no such exploration in this movie. There is no crime that Neeson’s character is paying for, other than being a shit husband and father, and the eventual money MacGuffin has nothing to do with that. He thinks he might have harmed someone in some way he can’t recall, and the killer briefly toys with him about this idea, but it goes nowhere, and really it’s only even mentioned to play into the “eat the rich” mentality most of us have, where we assume he’s a piece of shit because he’s “a credit to capitalism,” as Modine says in one of the worst line deliveries this side of The Happening.
But we see no real evidence of this. Sure his kids get all angsty about him sucking, but they’re kids. It’s what they do, especially the teenage Zach. There’s one brief scene where Matt has a call with one of his investors, wheeling and dealing to get the client to keep pouring money into the fund despite recent losses. Zach snidely comments afterwards that Matt only “won” that exchange because he lied. That’s another worthy route to go down, and it could pay dividends through callbacks as a means of showing how dishonesty flows through the bomber’s scheme but can ultimately save Matt when things come to a head. Of course, this is never mentioned again. The film opens with the family (except Helen) being glued to their screens, be they TVs, tablets, or phones. Hell, Matt even gets a newscast exposition dump from his car’s console. We could have set up a through line about how our collective addiction to the narrow view of a digital interface creates a thematic tunnel vision that obscures Matt’s ability to see the solution to his problems. Again, nope. When the bomber is revealed, he gloats about how many steps ahead he was the whole time, but literally none of it is shown or explained. It’s nothing but meaningless words.
All of this demonstrates a failure to understand even the basic assignment. What “retribution” is being exacted? What wrong has Matt committed to warrant his punishment? How does stealing money count as a punishment in and of itself? The filmmakers completely botched this adaptation. You don’t have to go in the same directions, but you have to at least HAVE a direction. It’s one thing to change the title for a certain audience, but Antal et al act as though calling the film Retribution just sounded better than Speed 3: This Time With a Car. The entire substance of the original was quite literally lost in the translation.
The only saving grace this movie has — and I truly mean this — is in the form of Emily. Lilly Aspell is the only member of this cast to give her character anything resembling charm or a personality, displaying a range that goes from cutesy to comedic to concerning. When she’s injured partway through the story, it’s Aspell’s performance that makes the viewer care for even a second about her fate. This whole film is a shit sandwich, but at least she tried to add a more palatable flavor.
Apart from her, this is a total misfire. You have a Liam Neeson action movie where Liam Neeson doesn’t get to do any action. You have a mindless, meandering narrative where even basic reasoning is unceremoniously defenestrated in favor of a few explosions. You have an adaptation literally in name only, because the filmmakers didn’t take into account the meanings of actual words. This just truly sucks, and for once I wasn’t alone in this thinking. When I saw it, just about everyone around me in the theatre was openly commenting on how crappy it was, how obvious the plot holes were, and one person even spoke up when someone’s phone went off, noting that at least it was a less lame ringtone than the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” chiptune used in the picture (again, with no actual plot relevance).
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