Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris in a scene from Beirut.
Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris in a scene from Beirut. Supplied

MOVIE REVIEW: Solid thriller genuinely surprises

JON Hamm knows his way around a damaged man.

After playing Don Draper for seven years on Mad Men, taking on the role of an alcoholic negotiator is child's play for the American actor.

There's the physicality of it - the ever present sweaty sheen on his face, the slight haziness in the eyes, or waking up in the driving lane of a carpark, car still running, hand rested next to a half-eaten doughnut and sporting a serious nine o'clock shadow.

But it's really in the way Hamm stuffs that tortured soul into the shell of a man with something to prove and the talents to do it that makes him so compelling to watch.

In Beirut, a political-spy thriller directed by Brad Anderson and written by Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy, Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a former diplomat turned corporate negotiator.

When we first meet Mason, it's 1972 and he's throwing a glamorous party in his mansion in Beirut, schmoozing and circulating among his guests, the paragon of ease and confidence. Then a betrayal, followed by unthinkable tragedy.

Flash forward 10 years and Mason is washed-up, running his own shop as a corporate negotiator between getting wasted. At a bar (because where else would he be), a man approaches him with an offer. Well, not an offer so much as a demand.

In disguise as a guest lecturer to the American University in Beirut, a place he swore he would never return to, he's recruited by the CIA to recover a US hostage taken by a fringe group associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Mason was requested specifically because of a personal connection.

Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike in a scene from Beirut.
Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike in a scene from Beirut. Supplied

The Beirut he's returned to is not the one he left in 1972 with the ongoing civil war wreaking havoc on the once-bustling cosmopolitan city. The oasis has been ousted by a grim, dusty war zone where gunfire barely draws anyone's attention and an abandoned tanker doubles for playground equipment.

It's a world of shifting allegiances, murky agendas and the constant threat of death.

There's a decent supporting cast including Rosamund Pike as a local CIA agent, Dean Norris as the CIA station chief, Shea Whigham as a colonel and Idir Chender as a young man with personal ties to Mason.

Beirut is a fairly standard thriller but it's tightly plotted, well-composed and there's at least one twist you genuinely don't see coming. Gilroy is an old hand at these types of thrillers, not just with the Bourne series but also the likes of Proof of Life, State of Play and Michael Clayton. Beirut greatly benefits from his experience, especially when it comes to pacing or creating a sense of jeopardy.

Beirut also presents an interesting albeit cursory look at a country torn apart by not just internal divisions but also external agendas it can't control. It's not a uni-level course by any means and it couldn't possibly capture the nuance in under two hours while it's preoccupied with its own power plays, but it's a good jumping off point for viewers keen to learn more.

And then there's Hamm. Be honest, is there anything you wouldn't watch him do?

Rating: ★★★

Beirut is in cinemas from today.

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