'Beckett' is a Classic 'For Heaven's Sake, What Now?' Action Thriller

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John David Washington sustaining multiple injuries in 'Beckett'.
John David Washington sustaining multiple injuries in 'Beckett'. (Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix)

There is a moment in the new Netflix thriller Beckett in which the main character played by John David Washington—who's already been in a rollover accident, been shot, been tased, been stung by bees, and likely broken both of his ankles—gets flex cuffs slapped on him, and now he's on the run ... in flex cuffs. The movie isn't even half over.

You already know a lot about how you'll feel about Beckett by how much this description makes you roll your eyes, versus shout "hooray!", versus a little bit of both. Beckett is listed as Netflix's number one film as of this writing, and yet there's little buzz around it. And that may be because of how precisely it meets the requirements of a movie of its type without ever meaningfully exceeding any expectation you might have.

And yet, I found myself coming down (gently) in the positive column on a film that, perhaps inevitably, has a 51 percent positive rating over on the review aggregator site Metacritic. I must confess: I just love a movie where a guy cannot catch a break. These cascading problems that become more and more ridiculous are the bread and butter of what you might call the For Heaven's Sake, What Now? genre. There's a little bit of this in movies like Die Hard (with the bare feet) and Speed (when Keanu Reeves stabs the gas tank with the screwdriver), but in a film like Beckett, it's the whole story. This movie doesn't actually have Beckett come down with scurvy and have him run over by the tuba section of a marching band on his way to a safe house that turns out to be haunted, but that's only because there's not time. Directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, Beckett is a movie about a guy who cannot catch a break—unless it's a break of his own arm.

Washington plays Beckett (just Beckett), an American on vacation in Greece with his girlfriend (played by Alicia Vikander, but don't get too excited, because it's a small role). They get in a terrible car accident, and once Beckett gets out of the hospital, he realizes that people are chasing him, and they are shooting at him, and he has no idea who they are or why they're doing all this. One can certainly understand how it would be unsettling.

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The police quickly prove untrustworthy, so Beckett gets it in his head that what he needs to do is get to the U.S. Embassy in Athens. It's important to set this goal, because one of the problems with on-the-run movies is always the question of where the on-the-run person is trying to get to, and what they think they're going to do when they arrive. Every obstacle course needs a finish line.

Regrettably, Beckett does run into the same problem as a lot of films with fun beginnings shrouded in mystery: It has to eventually answer the question of what the heck is going on. What they're going for here is (as critic Walter Chaw noted when we spoke about the film this week for Pop Culture Happy Hour) is the feeling of a larger conspiracy clamping down on Beckett, like you'd find in a 1970s paranoid thriller. But here, the more the film reveals about those menacing forces, the more it gets bogged down in a lot of only halfway considered material about Greek politics and American diplomacy. The final action set piece is fully ridiculous and poorly paced, particularly in contrast to the fairly straightforward chases of what happens earlier on, and by the end, the idea of Beckett as an everyman has been discarded in favor of the idea of Beckett as a superhero who manages some highly, highly unlikely feats of physics that the Beckett of a day or so earlier would never have even attempted.

The whole thing feels strangely conceived, and one hint about why might come from the press materials in which Filomarino says that what inspired this movie was other movies—other "manhunt" type films, only he wanted to try one where the protagonist was more of an ordinary person. It's not unusual to be inspired by other kinds of storytelling, obviously—that's the heart and soul of genre, and had they resisted the urge to make Beckett quite so bulletproof and quite so acrobatic, it might have paid off better.

But Beckett feels like perhaps the central story is underbaked because it originated not with an idea about a person, but with an idea about film, and then the task of building the story itself wasn't quite finished with the polish it needed. That might explain, too, the oddly inert supporting characters: Vicky Krieps shows up in an underdeveloped role as a local activist, for instance, and it's hard not to wish she had a lot more to do.

This kind of movie makes me think, I admit, of The Great British Baking Show. Sometimes, someone will make, say, a lemon cake. The the judges eat it and they announce, basically, "It's fine. I don't know that it's great, or that it's very exciting, but it's fine." This is not quite a ringing endorsement in the middle of a competition, but in fairness, what the person has made is still a lemon cake. And if you were in the mood for a lemon cake, then the fact that it's not the best lemon cake you've ever had may be something you would not focus on, were it sitting in front of you at home. "I believe I would eat that lemon cake" is a thought you may well find yourself having.

Beckett is a bit of a lemon cake.

On the plus side, it benefits from beautiful scenery as Beckett runs around Greece, up city streets and over mountains. It benefits from Washington having quite a natural regular-guy presence, in which he often seems overwhelmed, especially at the beginning. And it benefits from the audacious pile-up of challenges with which Beckett is faced.

But it could certainly be much better were it a tighter story with a more efficiently built puzzle at its center. There is a big difference, after all, between being able to forgive the flaws in a movie because it meets the basic requirements of its category and thinking there is no meaningful distinction between a good and bad movie like this, simply because it belongs to the popular genre known as the action thriller.

It could be a lot better. It could be a lot stronger as it approaches the finish. But there's something to be said for watching a guy hide in a car trunk and think, "For him, this is probably the best part of his day."

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The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast panel is Linda Holmes and Walter Chaw. The audio was produced and edited by Mike Katzif.

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