MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Beirut’ an entertaining geopolitical thriller with nice work from Hamm, Pike

Rosamund Pike, Jon Hamm, center, and Dean Norris appear in a scene from “Beirut.”
Rosamund Pike, Jon Hamm, center, and Dean Norris appear in a scene from “Beirut.” Bleeker Street

‘Beirut’

In theaters: April 11.

Rated: R for language, some violence and a brief nude image.

Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.

“Welcome to Beirut.”

Jon Hamm’s American diplomat Mason Skiles says these words to a group of folks he is entertaining at a cocktail party he and his wife are hosting at their beautiful home on the Mediterranean Sea.

Mason has just finished dazzling his guests with his entertaining version of the history of the still-largely luxurious if increasingly tension-filled coastal Lebanese capital city, a place that in 1972 finds itself of great interests to various foreign interests, the U.S. included.

Soon, Mason is pulled away from his guests when he is visited by his best friend, CIA Agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino, “13 Reasons Why”). Cal informs Mason that the 13-year-old orphan Mason and his wife hope to adopt is wanted for questioning by authorities because the boy’s brother is suspected of being involved with the terrorist attack at the Summer Olympics in Munich.

As Mason tries to reason with the government agents who want to take the boy, hooded men enter his house, snatching the boy and killing Mason’s wife in the process.

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And so begins “Beirut,” a largely engrossing geopolitical thriller with blurry lines of good and bad that gets a solid performance from Hamm, the “Mad Men” star who more recently played a supporting role in last year’s “Baby Driver.”

A decade after the traumatic events that open the film, Mason is working as a labor negotiator in Boston and drinking far too much. (A cop finds him passed out in his running car in the middle of a hotel parking lot and not-so-politely suggests he try sleeping in his room.)

Soon, at a bar, Mason is visited by an old acquaintance, who tells him he is there on behalf of mutual friends, friends who need him to immediately get on a plane and travel to Beirut, supposedly for a speaking engagement.

“I wouldn’t go back to Beirut if it were the last place on earth,” Mason says.

It quickly becomes clear he has little choice. When he suggests, for instance, he doesn’t have a passport, the man tells him one has been included in the packet he’s just been given that also contains $6,500.

Upon being picked up at the airport on foreign soil, Mason witnesses a man violently threatening another and firing bullets into the air.

“Welcome to Beirut,” his driver tells him.

In case there was any doubt, this was not the same place he left 10 years ago.

Mason soon learns that Cal has been kidnapped, and his connection to the event stretches beyond their onetime friendship. (The two haven’t been close since Mason left the region.)

To save Cal, Mason will have to work with CIA and embassy officials who include Donald Gaines (Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad,” the normally bald actor sporting a whole lot of seemingly fake hair) and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham of “Waco” and “Boardwalk Empire”) and Frank Whalen, both of whom seem less than completely trustworthy or happy to see Mason.

And then there’s Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), his Embassy-assigned handler. While she appears to be less-than-impressed by Mason upon meeting him — probably appropriately — the two working together may offer the best chance of rescuing Cal.

Under the direction of Brad Armstrong, who helmed the unsettling 2004 drama “The Machinists” and episodes of a great number of television series, “Beirut” is an intriguing and cloudy affair, the film’s murky look reflecting the story’s tone.

Armstrong gives the right pace and rhythms to a pretty smart screenplay by Tony Gilroy, whose myriad credits include “The Bourne Identity” and “Michael Clayton.” In the film’s press notes, Gilroy says the fictional story of “Beirut” grew out of conversations he had with producer Robert Cort, a former CIA analyst, and was inspired largely by the 1984 kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley.

Gilroy’s tale gives us just the right amount of ingredients to chew on, the writer no doubt aware of how the plots of similar foreign-affairs tales easily can become unwieldy.

The biggest mistake Gilroy and Armstrong make with “Beirut” is not making the talented Pike — quite memorable in 2014’s “Gone Girl” — a bigger presence earlier in the film. Sandy is, eventually, a key player, and Pike shares a decent chemistry with Hamm.

Hamm, meanwhile, doesn’t stretch himself here — Mason is basically a slightly more serious version of Don Draper playing with greater stakes but still knocking back the booze — but he’s entirely enjoyable nonetheless. Hamm just has that ability to draw you in and keep you captivated.

The same can be said for “Beirut,” a nice little spring-season thinker to see before the mindless fun of the summer blockbusters starts coming at us in a couple of weeks.

‘Beirut’

In theaters: April 11.

Rated: R for language, some violence and a brief nude image.

Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.