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3 out of 4 stars
  • Beirut
  • Directed by Brad Anderson
  • Written by Tony Gilroy
  • Starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike
  • Classification 14A; 109 minutes

Jon Hamm plays a former diplomat who is brought back to Beirut to complete one more job for the White House.

Sife Eddine El Amine/Courtesy of Elevation/High Wire IP, LLC

It is a mystery as to why Jon Hamm isn’t a bigger movie star than he is today.

As Mad Men’s drinker-in-chief Don Draper, Hamm radiated an irresistibly sly charm that could be turned on and off at will, whenever the show decided it needed him to be just that much more of an SOB. Over the series’ eight-year run, the actor was as reliable as an old fashioned, as versatile as an open bar. Yet his work outside the confines of cable were reserved either for supporting roles that seemed like favours to funnier friends (Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; David Wain’s Childrens Hospital and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp) or watered-down studio offerings that I guarantee you do not remember, don’t lie (Million Dollar Arm, Keeping Up with the Joneses).

Jon Hamm should be as much a GIF-ready obsession as Armie Hammer, as enticing a prospect as Tom Hardy. The fact that Gerard Butler secures more leading roles is tantamount to cinematic heresy. Yet here we are in 2018, and Hamm’s most formidable big-screen turn remains a supporting performance in last year’s Baby Driver, and even that went off the rails by act three.

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So while it would be a pleasure to report that the new thriller Beirut will spark a Jon Hamm renaissance (a Hamm-aissance?), I have my doubts. Not that the actor – and most of director Brad Anderson’s film – doesn’t try its damnedest to make such a thing happen. It is more a question of, three years removed from his AMC heyday, is there still a market to make Jon Hamm the leading man he deserves to be?

Thanks to the various current forces defining the industry landscape, I’m going to predict: no. But that’s not without a little sadness. Anderson’s Beirut is a mid-budget drama about adults, intended for adults and with no intentions to extend itself beyond its 109-minute run-time. It seems like a film stubbornly out of time – which makes sense once you know that Tony Gilroy’s screenplay has been making the rounds since 1991. Beirut could have been an expensive, prestige studio movie twenty, or even ten, years ago. Today, it might’ve been a Netflix Original, had the producers at distributor Bleecker Street not stepped in to bring it to the big screen.

And thank goodness they did, as Beirut is as solid a film as Hamm is a performer. The movie is not a flashy affair, but it does hit in unexpected ways and uses its pretty faces (Hamm, but also Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike, another performer who should be ruling the world) to deliver something you will likely expect, but nonetheless appreciate.

The film opens in the American Midwest circa 1982, where Hamm’s Mason Skiles is eking out a life as a labour negotiator in the country’s finest third-rate conference centres. Drunk but not inefficient, Mason is doing well drowning memories of his time as a suave diplomat in the film’s title city, where he lost a wife and home to terrorism. As happens in these kind of movies, he’s suddenly needed for one last job by the White House, which has found itself caught in a fun game of who’s-betraying-who in the Middle East.

The story itself is predictable – there are double-crosses and red herrings and one CIA-focused plot hole that’s large enough to swallow Lebanon itself whole – but there is a unique confidence in not only Gilroy’s sharp sense of character and dialogue, but also Anderson’s smooth command of action and the chance to watch Hamm carefully think things through on-screen. Mason could have been just another broken man who requires the danger of a foreign dilemma, and country, to push him toward redemption. Yet Hamm imbues his hero with a sense of responsibility and sincerity, and allows the audience to witness him tick until he explodes. There is no Don Draper or anyone else clinging to Hamm’s skin here – it’s a fresh and raw role he builds from the inside out.

The production itself is less carefully assembled – although that might speak more to today’s movie business than anything else. Shot in Morocco, where it’s easier to secure production insurance, there is no sense of an actual Beirut in Beirut. Too many scenes feel hemmed in by cheap office and hotel-room sets, and any scenes involving pyrotechnics feel like the shoestring work of, say, Rushmore’s Max Fischer Players. More dispiriting is the absence of any actual Lebanese or even Middle East performers who aren’t relegated to playing hostile terrorists and the generic soundtrack that feels pulled from a thousand movies about the region.

But if you close your eyes at certain points and squint hard enough during others, Beirut offers the best version of Jon Hamm, Movie Star, that we’ve seen so far. I’ll drink to that.

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Beirut opens April 13.

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