Jon Hamm could carry an action franchise, no? Not the type in which he jumps off high-flying airplanes while cracking punchlines or chases a fleet of cars in downtown Hong Kong in the year 2045. Envision a thinking person’s franchise, one befitting of the onetime alpha-male Don Draper. The espionage thriller Beirut is a decent-ish starting point.
The action starts in 1972, when Hamm’s Mason Skiles hosts a bustling house party in Lebanon. Mason is a dashing American diplomat who prides himself on his powers of negotiation in the war-torn Middle East. He’s surrounded by friends such as American official Cal (Mark Pellegrino), his pretty wife, Nadia, and Karim, a sweet 13-year-old Lebanese boy the couple hope to adopt. Then terrorists invade the home, kill Mason’s wife and snatch Karim. See, Karim’s older brother is the one helping carry out the attacks. In a flash, Mason’s professional and personal life implodes.
A decade later, Mason is a Boston-based alcoholic tasked with handling minor labor disputes. He can’t conceal his misery as union leaders and businessmen clash with each other. So when he’s approached in a bar (naturally) with an offer to return to Lebanon for an alleged speaking engagement, he doth not protest too much. Once in Beirut, he learns Cal has been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. And Mason is the only one capable of negotiating a deal for his friend’s freedom. Well, Mason and his handlers, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad).
Mason shares more than a few similarities with Hamm’s iconic Mad Men character. Both men are exceptionally good at their jobs yet tormented on the inside. Even at their most content, there’s an underlying subtext of fear and self-loathing. And just like Draper pitched luggage and soft drinks to potential clients on Madison Avenue as if his life depended on it, Mason must cajole others into giving up information for the well-being of Cal. Hamm doesn’t quite have a personality to match the size of the screen — especially compared to dependable movie stars such as Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington and Matt Damon. But the wheels inside his head are constantly churning.
Beirut is not a deft character study. It’s not a heart-pumping, thrill-a-second action flick either. It languishes somewhere in the middle, making it a mildly frustrating viewing experience. Characters plod from set piece to set piece while spewing hard-to-digest bursts of information. They’re in a race-against-the-clock situation, yet the suspense rarely builds to the point where I feared for the lives of anyone onscreen — not even when a van barrels through a barricade and the bullets start flying. The tidy climax doesn’t feel earned.
The Beirut backstory is just as fascinating as what transpires in the film itself. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne trilogy) wrote this story in the 1990s, then shelved it because the subject matter was too messy. Then it became too musty. A producer recently unearthed it and gave it the greenlight with a micro-budget. Hamm and the cast shot it in Morocco during a blazing-hot summer in record time. The indie finally premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it drew praise because it features the gritty, dirty, sweaty, complex style of a mainstream Jason Bourne entry. I note all this because the cast and behind-the-scenes talent did wonders under the unusual circumstances. Imagine what they could do with even more money and time and a fresh screenplay. Let’s see them try.
Beirut opens in theaters on Friday, April 13