Perhaps it’s time that Jon Hamm finally got his own action franchise, one that’s lighter on actual stunts than “Taken” and with a little less brain than a John Le Carre thriller. With that in mind, Brad Anderson’s “Beirut” just might fit the bill as an origin story.
It opens in 1972, when diplomat-turned-sorta-spy Mason Skiles (Hamm) is hosting a rollicking house party with his lovely wife; they’re aided by their orphaned Lebanese charge Karim, who is happily delivering finger foods to government VIPs. And then, everything goes topside when his best pal Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives at the party with frantic news: Karim isn’t an orphan, and in fact has a big brother with major ties to terrorism.
This accidental crisis doesn’t seem unlikely; Mason is a bit of a smoothie, a negotiator who likes talking his way out of a situation and happens to be blessed with the ability to really jaw it up. However, this massive error in judgment means his time in the diplomacy game is over, as is every shred of his personal life.
A decade later, he’s a drunk and a small-time negotiator tasked with handling minor labor disputes who never, ever wants to return to Beirut. This is, of course, when a man appears alongside Mason in a bar, offering a fat envelope stuffed with cash, a passport, and a first-class ticket to Beirut. Something has happened to a friend, something bad, and only Mason can fix it.
Based on a screenplay Tony Gilroy first wrote nearly three decades ago — the screenwriter intended it as his follow-up to sports romance “The Cutting Edge,” (and yes, Tony Gilroy did write “The Cutting Edge”) — “Beirut” was initially put on ice because it was too topical, and then it became too passé. Eventually unearthed by producer Mike Weber, who was rightly excited to find an old Tony Gilroy script that includes the introduction of a brand-new spy universe, it’s the kind of throwback thriller that Hollywood doesn’t often make these days.
And, maybe they shouldn’t. Anderson (“The Machinist”) matches Mason with an ace supporting cast, including Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, and Shea Whigham, all of whom ultimately prove to be underserved in a narrative that values twists and turns over actual growth. (There’s even one scene late in the film that seems to exist solely to drive home the point that everyone is putting on a front, though it’s so underbaked that it makes no sense.)
As Mason slips deeper into a complicated situation he has zero business participating in — beyond the fact that the terrorists at the heart of the situation explicitly asked for him, and no one found that weird in the slightest – the film borders on parody. Hamm is increasingly addled, morose, and haunted by what happened to him a decade earlier. If he’s not slipping off to chat with the terrorists or hitting the hotel bar, Mason is doing little else to help his (and his kidnapped friend’s) cause. Perhaps the U.S. government should have employed a fixer actually able to fix things?
The stakes in “Beirut” are high (a high-ranking official has been kidnapped, and everyone seems convinced that he’s going to spill all kinds of secrets), but Hamm lopes through the process without much conviction. A handful of dramatic scenes do allow the actor to show off his chops, but much of “Beirut” simply requires him to look sweaty and pissed off. The film shot during a Morocco summer, so that wasn’t a huge ask.
Anderson does add some style to the film, doing wonders with an indie-sized budget for a film that requires a specific period setting. “Beirut” renders its location as a gritty, dirty, complex twist of rubble and blown-out buildings, and it’s wholly understandable that no one ever feels fully safe there. It’s that kind of inherent tension that “Beirut” could stand to mine, as the back half of the film speeds toward a conclusion that’s both unearned and inevitable. Still, it sets up an ending, that could spawn further Mason Stiles adventures, presumably new thrillers where he lucks into hefty drinks and even heftier missions.
“Beirut” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street will open the film on April 13.