Ahh, Greece, a land of ancient ruins, dazzling white architecture, azure blue seas, and proto-fascists trying to murder you. Finally, a movie attempts to depict this land of contrasts in its full complexity.
For most of its runtime, Beckett is an intense and compelling thriller. It throws its one-named protagonist, Beckett, into a nightmare scenario and then we take the ride along with him, trying to survive a chase through a foreign land that’s as hard for him to blend into as it is to understand. It’s a movie that’s great at building intrigue as we try to figure out what the hell is going on, sifting through tantalizing clues. It’s the answers that aren’t very satisfying.
John David Washington plays Beckett. We don’t know much about him, but the other characters in the film never let us forget that his name is Becket. Beckett. Beckett? Beckett… BECKETT!
When we catch up with him, Beckett is on vacation in Greece with his girlfriend, played by Alicia Vikander. The two seem to have a loving, if slightly obnoxious relationship, creating imagined backstories for other tourists and gently chiding each other over their personality quirks — he’s an underplanner, she’s an overplanner, etc. Let’s call the whole thing off! Is there an undercurrent of tension in their actions or are we just imagining things?
They’ve had to reroute their stay in Athens to the mountains, thanks to some kind of political protest in the city square. On a drive to their new hotel, Beckett dozes off and their car flies off the road, crashing into a house. Beckett survives the crash, but when he returns to the scene the next day, one of the local cops who questioned him after the accident is suddenly trying to kill him. Oops, now what? Where can Beckett go? To whom can Beckett turn? BECKETT!
Specifics make a story sing, and Beckett, directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino (previously a second unit director on Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria) is strong on those. “How do you outrun corrupt cops when you’re marooned in the Greek countryside but don’t speak Greek and try to blend in when you’re a black man wearing a cast?” isn’t a question I’ve seen posed in other movies. It turns out to be a pretty intriguing one.
Beckett seems to have gotten himself caught up in some kind of political intrigue, the clues to which are the rally in Athens, the organized nature of the people hunting him, and a leftist opposition leader named Karras, whose kidnapped son’s face graces walls all over town. The people are all fired up protesting the EU’s austerity measures. At one point, Beckett makes his way to the American embassy, where there’s a framed picture of Obama on the wall.
It’s at this point, more than halfway into the film, that we’re given to realize that we’ve been watching a period piece this whole time. That not only is Beckett about a black man with a cast on his arm on the run in Greece, it’s also set some time in 2008-2012 or so. This is a remarkable level of specificity for what has, up until that point, mostly taken the shape of a chase film. I’m a sucker for any film set in a very specific time and place, and an American movie that utilizes the particular politics and geography of another country is always a welcome change. At a basic level, I’d rather look at the hills of Athens than downtown LA, even if it functions only as window dressing.
Yet the quilt of interconnected events that Beckett seems to be sewing for the whole movie never really comes together in the end. Even aside from the geopolitical intrigue, Beckett the movie fails utterly at giving us any meaningful sense of Beckett the character. Who is this guy? Why is he in Greece? What is his relationship like with his girlfriend? Early on, the film feints towards interesting answers, but in the end it sort of just takes those quilt patches and crudely duct tapes them together. Its central failing is that in a film that had to be set in Greece in a very specific time period, the protagonist could’ve been anyone.
To some extent, Beckett has a hole in it that probably no actor could fill. But there are times it seems to require character choices that John David Washington can’t or doesn’t make. Does this guy have anxiety issues or is he just in love? Is he angry, sad, or confused? When he says he’s a software salesman, is that the truth or sarcasm?
Mostly, Beckett treats Washington like Wile E. Coyote, bouncing him from once ass-kicking to the next as he becomes almost comically bandaged, a la Ken in A Fish Called Wanda. This worked as a joke in A Fish Called Wanda and as a plot element in John Wick, because Keanu Reeves plays a comically tough retired hitman. But who is Beckett? “The Everyman?” The character’s dogged durability seems more like a writing crutch, a way to keep its lead at the center of a plot without having to finish the work of writing him.