From Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) to Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and of course, two memorable Harrison Ford-starred thrillers Frantic (1988) and The Fugitive (1993), these are some of the prime examples that defined a well-crafted manhunt film.
The newly-released Beckett is the latest addition to the ever-growing list of manhunt films, which was originally (and laughably) called Born to Be Murdered before Netflix acquired the worldwide rights last year and gradually changed the title. Frankly, even with the new title, I can’t help but felt that Beckett sounds both generic and uninspired.
If that’s not enough, the film featured John David Washington in the lead role. Not the kind of actor that I really look forward to, given his somewhat lacklustre performances so far that I’ve seen in Spike Lee’s overrated BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Christopher Nolan’s high-concept but muddled Tenet (2020). Although he did show some excellent acting prowess in the black-and-white chamber drama Malcolm & Marie, which was released earlier this year on Netflix, it wasn’t enough to make the film a standout.
But surprisingly, the otherwise conventionally-titled Beckett gives John David Washington a chance to shine as an actor. He certainly fits the bill to play the kind of an everyman protagonist caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, he plays the title character, where we first learned that he’s having a fun and romantic vacation in Greece with his beautiful girlfriend, April (Alicia Vikander). Everything goes well at first until a long, night drive along the mountain roads and ended up with a severe car accident.
The next thing he knows after waking up in a hospital, he finds himself with a broken arm and feeling disoriented. Soon after dealing with the local police (one of them played by Panos Koronis), he heads back to a place on the bottom of the mountain where his car fell and crashed through a derelict cottage. Then, something goes wrong. A mysterious blonde woman (Lena Kitsopoulou) and the same cop (Koronis) he talked to earlier located him at the cottage and starts shooting at him.
Still recovering from his accident wound, he has no choice but to run as far away as possible. And his only chance for survival is to reach the U.S. embassy in Athens.
Beckett marks the Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s English-language debut. His previous credit includes 2015’s Antonia Pozzi biopic Antonia. and also worked as a second-unit director for several of Luca Guadagnino’s films, notably Call Me by Your Name and the arty remake of Suspiria. Filomarino chose to play it straight in this film, which pays homage to both Alfred Hitchcock’s wrong-man-in-peril subgenre and 1970s conspiracy films. He knows well how to keep the pace brisk and economical, even if the first 14 minutes or so is deliberately paced to make way for establishing character moments between Washington’s Beckett and Vikander’s April as a loving couple.
As slow as it might cause impatient viewers to click away, the film somehow got me hooked from the start. Perhaps it has to do with the way Filomarino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captured the idyllic landscape of Greece. Once Beckett finds himself running for his life, Filomarino maintains the level of tension consistently for the rest of the film’s 108-minute runtime. A word of warning, though: If you are expecting the chase sequences somewhere in the same league with The Fugitive, you will likely be disappointed.
Instead, Filomarino keeps the action as grounded as possible minus the sensational or big Hollywood-style action setpieces. When Beckett is on the run, we see that he’s always panicked and forced to improvise as he goes along. He doesn’t suddenly become a pro when comes to shooting a gun or fight against anyone who tries to kill him. Everything is chaotic and even the fact he manages to survive throughout the ordeal, it’s more of a combination of basic survival instinct and dumb luck than an implausible skill that comes out of nowhere. Well, perhaps save it for a scene where Beckett dares himself to risk a jump from a multi-storey parking lot above and wait for a car to land on top of the roof.
Another thing I like about Filomarino handling the action sequences is his clean-cut and classical-style direction. In other words, there are no fast edits or annoying shaky-cam aesthetics for the sake of so-called heightening a sense of urgency. Apart from John David Washington’s better-than-expected lead performance, Alicia Vikander does a good job in an otherwise throwaway character as Beckett’s doomed girlfriend while both Vicky Krieps and Daphne Alexander deliver solid supports as two activists, who help Beckett along the way.
The final third act somehow stretches believability with the aforementioned parking-lot scene being one of them. And despite all the been-there, done-that genre convention involving an ordinary man on the run, Beckett still surprises me as an above-average thriller worth streaming for.
Beckett is currently streaming on Netflix.