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The plot of the latest Liam Neeson thriller (stop me if you’ve heard this one before): A Type-A business executive based in Berlin is driving his two children to school when he receives a phone call from an artificially disguised voice informing him that there are bombs strapped under the seats and they’ll go off if anyone attempts to get out of the car.
Don’t you hate when that happens?
Release date: Friday, Aug. 25
Cast: Liam Neeson, Noma Dumezweni, Lilly Aspell, Jack Champion, Arian Moayed, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Modine
Director: Nimrod Antal
Screenwriter: Christopher Salmanpour
1 hour 30 minutes
Anyway, the film, Speed, sorry, Retribution, proves to be the sort of easily engineered, high-concept actioner designed to appeal to both international audiences (this is the third, count ‘em, third remake of the 2015 Spanish film El desconocido, which was followed by German and South Korean versions) and the sort of couch potatoes looking for 90 minutes of mindless streaming distraction on a weekend night. It arrives in theaters the last week of August, which is the moviegoing equivalent of desperately scanning the faces at a bar just before closing time.
Neeson plays Matt, a businessman with no particular set of skills, who’s clearly been neglecting his wife (Embeth Davidtz, reuniting with the actor 30 years after Schindler’s List, and oh, how time flies) and his teenage son (Jack Champion) and younger daughter (Lilly Aspell). At his wife’s urging, Matt reluctantly agrees to drive the kids to school, a task he’s long neglected, and that’s when the trouble begins.
Matt is told by the unknown caller, who’s conveniently placed a cellphone in the car along with those bombs, that he must arrange the transfer of hundreds of millions of euros from some shady overseas account that signifies that Matt isn’t totally above board in his business dealings. At first, his kids, typically distracted by their electronic devices, are oblivious to the danger. But he’s soon forced to clue them in, especially when he’s ordered to throw their cellphones out of the car.
Things get even dicier when Matt is directed to pull over near a car in which he finds his business associate and best friend Anders (Matthew Modine), whom he’s ordered to shoot with a gun that’s also been placed in the car. (You start to wonder if the villain thoughtfully left snacks as well). Anders, unaware of Matt’s predicament, is understandably confused by his friend’s behavior, but if you’ve seen the film’s trailer you know that his confusion doesn’t last long.
The cat-and-mouse game between Matt and his tormenter takes on more complexity when the authorities get involved — not surprising since explosions are occurring around the city at a higher rate than usual. The Europol agent (Noma Dumezweni, who played Hermione in both the London and Broadway productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) heading the pursuit proves less than sympathetic to Matt’s claims that his car is wired with explosives and he’s merely following orders. And who could blame her? It’s such an unbelievable premise.
The film throws in several red herrings, such as a helmeted motorcycle rider closely following Matt’s car who turns out to be, surprise, not working for the villain. And, in a weak attempt at providing some human — rather than mechanical — drama to the proceedings, Matt learns during his predicament that his wife is beginning divorce proceedings against him. Talk about a bad day.
There’s also a plot twist toward the end involving the bad guy’s true identity, followed by him and Matt having the sort of vaguely philosophical discussion endemic to mediocre action movies, compete with the villain proudly explaining how smart he is and how he’s figured out all the angles. Except, as you might imagine, for one.
Director Nimrod Antal (Predators) stages the mostly vehicular mayhem with as much variety and visual excitement as possible, especially in a crucial scene in which Matt is cornered by the police in a tunnel. But there’s only so much he can do with the hackneyed premise, which worked much better with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock trapped on a bus.
Neeson plays his generic character in regular-guy, rather than badass, mode, up until his little girl gets injured, when he inevitably threatens the villain with that familiar macho growl. Sad to say, though, that the actor’s getting a little long in the tooth for this sort of thing, which might explain why he spends the majority of the film’s running time comfortably seated.