‘Beckett’ Review: He Must Go On

In “Beckett,” John David Washington plays a guy who keeps stumbling into trouble. He’s an ordinary man, or so we’re to believe. This conceit, though, is soon torpedoed both by a story that grows more implausible with each passing second and by his character’s gift for self-preservation. Especially impressive in this respect are his legs, which pump like pistons as he sprints through bullets and other dangers that keep getting in his way.

In genre terms, “Beckett” is a thriller, if one that’s light on thrills. Mostly, it is a Running Man Movie. Men and women have been running — literally or metaphorically, on foot or by car — as long as movies have been around. Sometimes, the runners seem directionless (and go in circles), yet even when they don’t know their final destination (Mexico? Canada?), they adhere to a few rules of the road. They tend not to respect borders or boundaries, including those of genre, and rush in wherever they can, in comedies, noirs, westerns, you name it. Invariably they head toward danger.

When you first meet Washington’s character, Beckett, he’s traveling on the Greek mainland with his girlfriend, April (Alicia Vikander), where they’re poking around some ruins in what seems to be off-season. (A negligible presence, Vikander seems to have been cast because she’s a name.) Beckett, who works in tech, doesn’t seem interested in the scenery; his eyes and attention are fixed on April. Their smiles and coziness are stiff and unpersuasive, as is the dialogue. But the two of them are pretty and like to smooch, and it’s agreeable or at least pleasant enough watching movie people nuzzle each other.

Something happens and Beckett is soon alone and on the move, crossing a land that resembles an obstacle course. Filled with enigmatic villains, good Samaritans, Mediterranean scrub and little else (not even racial prejudice), the Greece that Beckett traverses is a destabilizing, putatively exotic backdrop for our hapless hero. In shrewder hands, this could read as a critique of the tourist-board shilling of certain movies. Here, however, the absence of blue seas, charming goats and dimensionally rendered locals seems like indifference, to the point that it’s hard not to think the country’s appeal rests entirely in the tax breaks it grants filmmakers who shoot there.

The story is at once overstuffed and underdeveloped, fusing personal tragedy with political intrigue. For reasons that never make much sense, people with guns are chasing Beckett, whose primary distinction is his ability to evade capture. So he runs and keeps on running as he wades through water, crosses lonely roads, scampers down dusty hills and hitches a ride with an earnest activist, Lena (a wasted Vicky Krieps). Yet another of those improbable female guardian angels that moviemakers adore, Lena is soon swept up in Beckett’s adventure, helping him piece together the ragged narrative pieces.

For the most part, Beckett clocks miles and looks trapped, which certainly makes him an empathetic (or at least a relatable) figure. But the easy compassion you feel for characters in distress goes only so far. You need something else to bind you to them, whether it’s mystery, charisma, an oddball personality or, well, just the filmmaking. The actors need the very same. Washington is a likable actor and easy on the eyes, but the character is unproductively one-dimensional and so is the performance, which remains reactive and opaque. Here, at least, he can’t turn an underconceptualized character into one whom you either care about or want to watch gasping and grimacing for several hours.

The director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, making his first feature in English (from a script by Kevin A. Rice), keeps the pieces in motion but doesn’t create a sense of urgency of the kind that sustains a feature-length chase. That’s too bad. It’s especially disappointing given some of the talent behind the camera: the music was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and the cinematographer, costume designer and editor all worked on the art-house release “Call Me by Your Name.” Filomarino served as the second unit director on that movie, which presumably explains why its director, Luca Guadagnino, signed onto this one as a producer. Maybe it’s time for someone here to cut the cord.

Beckett
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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