In a recent think piece for Salon, critic Sam Adams asks “Where did all the hacks go?” He’s mainly talking about Disney’s penchant for foisting huge tentpole features onto otherwise unqualified indie directors (and doesn’t mention the very fertile grounds of DTV action), but his general point stands — there’s a dearth of talented but unpretentious craftsmen content to take on unglamorous projects and make the most of them. Like Farber’s termites, any notions of “art” are secondary to simply doing a job and doing it well. Nimród Antal is one of several contemporary filmmakers who fit this mold, a skilled technician who manages to elevate otherwise dubious material. As Hollywood has moved away from small- and medium-budget movies in favor of an “all blockbusters all the time” model, Antal has found himself looking for work in television and, now, the dregs of the late-period Liam Neeson action-thriller. True, the Hungarian-born writer-director got his start with artsy import Kontroll, but he shifted almost immediately to a couple of superior low-budget, highly compact thrillers, Vacancy and Armored, before helming a truly odd Metallica concert film (Through the Never) and a sturdy if unremarkable Predator franchise entry. Since then, he’s helmed episodes of Servant for Apple TV and the Netflix behemoth Stranger Things. He’s made the most of those opportunities — the television format makes it extremely difficult to leave a visual stamp on, but Antal’s Servant episodes are second only to Shyamalan’s for formal ingenuity. Ignatiy Vischnevetsky has referred to Antal as a “B-film classicist” whose skills “have a lot to do with bluntly, crisply delineating characters, actions, relationships, and group dynamics, a real metteur en scene, an arranger of bodies and eye lines.”
These specific skills are put to good use in the director’s new film, Retribution, one of Neeson’s now-annual mid-range genre pieces that get creakier the older the actor gets. There have been a few gems, of course, like Joe Carnahan’s underrated The Gray and a series of collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra (speaking of talented hacks who abandoned their more modest virtues in an attempt to move up to the big leagues). In fact, Collet-Serra is a producer here, and his involvement alongside Antal’s penchant for claustrophobic, interiorized spaces should give viewers a clear idea of what’s in store for them. Neeson plays Matt Turner, a hedge fund investment douchebag who begins the film tethered to his cell while ignoring his put-upon wife and two obnoxious kids. Things are bad at work; the markets are down, and clients are threatening to pull their money out. Matt’s friend and business partner, played by Matthew Modine, needs him to make some calls and turn on the charm to keep the money flowing. Meanwhile, his wife needs him to drive the kids to school. Matt says he’s too busy, but once she gets flustered, he finally agrees. He wrangles the youngsters into his brand new Mercedes and immediately receives a phone call — a distorted voice informs him that there is a bomb in the car; if anyone tries to get out of the automobile, it will explode. If anyone calls the police it will explode. And if Matt doesn’t follow the mystery caller’s every instruction to the letter, it will explode. What follows is fairly paint-by-numbers — part Speed, part Locke.
There’s some pleasure in seeing how the plot will unfold, a complicated series of events involving offshore accounts and the gradual revelation that Matt is being framed for the actions of this mad bomber. It’s a serviceable screenplay done no favors by mostly bad acting. Matt’s children are grating, awful little people who whine and bicker. Credit where it’s due, this is clearly part of the point — Matt is a terrible father who has raised terrible children, and this life-and-death situation forces him to reckon with his own failures. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it any easier to put up with an endless stream of onscreen bickering. Thankfully, old pro Antal directs the hell out of Retribution. Here is a film you could watch with the sound off and still make sense of thanks to the director’s keen sense of visual storytelling. Antal and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano — a Collet-Serra veteran, having lensed The Shallows, Non-Stop, & Jungle Cruise — craft a symphony of precise framings, utilizing the limited space inside the car to constantly chop up and articulate character dynamics. The rearview mirror becomes a screen within the screen, while reflections from the windows and windshield collage images together in frequently thrilling ways. The camera is allowed outside of the car on more than one occasion (the film has a high-concept hook, but the filmmakers are not locked in to some gimmick); aerial shots turn roads and blocks of buildings into maze-like spaces; a long sequence involving a tunnel takes on a mysterious aura as the sights and sounds of the city drop out, leaving only a cavernous space and the car trying to navigate it. One still longs for far better dialogue and less annoying characters — Matt’s redemption is telegraphed from a mile away, and far too easy — but the film is an undeniable joy to simply look at. For viewers interested in how moving pictures actually move, this otherwise unremarkable time-waster is actually indispensable. A flawed thriller, Retribution is nonetheless a real treat for those more inclined toward mise en scène than character or narrative plausibility.