The condemned: Beeper (2002)
The plot: From its first moments, Beeper announces itself as a project dead-set on trying to achieve as little as possible, while still technically counting as a movie. The film’s tech-savvy opening credits and clunky, overlit interiors make it look more like an ’80s direct-to-video offering than something created in the 21st century. The plot is so paint-by-numbers that you could make a Mad Libs out of it: “A [profession] travels to the foreign land of [country] with his [relative] to deliver a [activity] only to have that [same relative] kidnapped. The kidnapper communicates with him via [outdated technology], so when that device is accidentally swapped for one belonging to a [type of criminal], [protagonist] is forced to work with the lawbreaker to...” And so on.
In this case, Richard Avery (Ed Quinn) is a doctor of genetic bioengineering, which doesn’t factor into the story in the slightest, save to provide the motivation to send him and his son on a trip to India to deliver a keynote lecture at a conference. In a scene that makes it more like a magic trick than a kidnapping, his son is stolen from the middle of the conference hall during his talk. The local police seem less than skilled at resolving the issue, save for the inexplicably American presence of Joey Lauren Adams, apparently there as part of an anti-terrorism unit. (Of which she is the only discernible member; thank goodness her duties didn’t include justifying her presence there.) So when the kidnapper gives Avery a beeper and tells him to follow the instructions to the letter or his son dies, Avery brushes off the police help in hopes of getting his kid back alive.
Cue the implausible switcheroo: During a “test run” in which the kidnapper makes Avery prove his commitment to doing whatever he’s told by having him race through a crowded market, Avery accidentally loses the beeper when he gives his jacket to a man he bumps into—and shortly thereafter sees the man has given the beeper to a random beggar, who gives it back to Avery. Only, it’s not the same beeper: This one belongs to a local drug kingpin named Zolo (Harvey Keitel), and when the next set of instructions tell Avery to pick up a bag at the train station, he unwittingly becomes a drug mule, making off with a bag of opium. Avery stashes it and goes to Zolo, where the two men strike a deal: If the crimelord helps Avery get the beeper back, Zolo gets his drugs. The second half of the movie spends way too much time following the two men as they drive around, killing time until the climactic showdown with the kidnapper. Is it an exciting conclusion? It is not. (Except for one chase scene in India where it looks like a car might’ve actually hit an extra on a scooter at one point—we’ll get to that.)
Over-the-top box copy: Nada, but the tagline is, “When every call is a close call.” Which doesn’t make sense.
The descent: It’s always fun to stumble upon an old movie you’re surprised you’ve never heard of. I can still remember the elation I felt the day I was scrolling through lists of ’80s teen movies and uncovered Tuff Turf, a film that features James Spader playing a sassy teenager who is good at riding a bicycle and Robert Downey Jr. as his punk rock drummer friend. How had I never heard of it prior to 2010? It confounds me still. Nonetheless, it was a joy to finally watch—pure B-movie Velveeta.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to this long-lost-movie coin, and that’s the films that were buried for a reason. When I learned there was a movie made in 2002 called Beeper—a year in which beepers were already a mostly outdated technology—and it starred none other than Harvey Keitel, it gave me that Tuff Turf feeling. The Bad Lieutenant himself, in a film seemingly designed to be a cheap knock-off of the communications-based thrillers like Phone Booth and Cellular that had been hitting the multiplexes the previous year? That’s the definition of appealing DTV trash. Or rather, it was, until I started watching the movie.
Anyway, this seems like a clear-cut case of a paycheck role for Keitel, and given the DTV trappings of the time and the foreign setting, there may have also been some tax write-off incentives at work behind the scenes. Though the presence of Joey Lauren Adams on top of all that is just weird.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Keitel is the sole draw here. (Sorry, JLA.) After the first half of the movie passes without so much of a whiff of Keitel, I started to worry it was one of those bait-and-switch “hire a star to film for a single day, then slap their name on the cover” con jobs. Thankfully, he’s in the entire second half of the movie, though as you’ll see, “maximum effort” doesn’t exactly seem to be the actor’s guiding principle here.
The execution: Sure, Beeper’s narrative is ultimately an illogical mess, with subpar performances from its cast and lackluster pacing, but at least it also looks like garbage! It’s not that the film is actively shitty so much as it’s just deeply inessential, the cinematic equivalent of a shrug. Nothing here feels like anyone was trying very hard, from the set decoration to the acting to the stuntwork. It’s all just a team of people checking the boxes off the beats of a generic thriller, presumably hoping to get the shots completed in time to knock off early each day.
None of which is to say there aren’t some moments of levity to make the viewing experience go down a little easier. For instance, the opening sequence, which features the local police busting a drug deal, paints these guys as maybe the least effective police in history. Watch as they try to stop the bad guy from escaping on his motorcycle by standing stock still and shooting endlessly at him. Thankfully, rather than drive away from them, he leisurely drives alongside, offering himself up like a target at a carnival duck-hunt booth.
When the police sergeant assures Avery that he should “leave it to the experts” when it comes to getting back his son, you almost wish you could play that opening clip for Avery to show him he’s absolutely right to refuse their assistance.
The kidnapper’s plan is hilariously convoluted, though at least before the beeper mixup there’s a chance the movie is just going to be Avery racing around, trying to get to the next checkpoint before the beeper goes off again and his son winds up dead. That would have been at least minimally exciting, albeit silly. But credit where credit’s due: This is the first kidnapper in history to try and intimidate the man he’s blackmailing by shooting a teddy bear.
The dialogue has the hallmarks of a script penned by someone less interested in coherent human emotion than trying to give the characters some semblance of depth in the face of all evidence to the contrary. For example, after Zolo—a hardened criminal who has spent the past couple of hours explaining to Avery that he doesn’t care if his son lives or dies (or Avery himself, for that matter)—starts driving the doctor around in an effort to locate the beeper, he out of nowhere smiles at him and says, “See, you make me want to have a son?” What? Shortly thereafter, Zolo threatens to shoot Avery.
But for sheer dialogue-for-dialogue’s-sake, nothing tops this exchange between Avery and Adams’ CIA agent. Keep in mind, at this point his son has been kidnapped, he’s lost the beeper to get him back, and effectively sealed his son’s fate. Maybe it’s time for a talk about how this whole fiasco can be chalked up to good parenting!
Normally, a subpar performance doesn’t distract much in a bad B-movie like this one, but it might be worth giving a special shout-out to Ed Quinn as Dr. Richard Avery. At this point, Quinn has carved out a respectable career for himself, with strong supporting turns and recurring roles on shows like One Day At A Time, 2 Broke Girls, Revenge, and Eureka. But most actors will tell you their first couple onscreen gigs weren’t their best work, and at the time he shot Beeper, Quinn had only done a few guest TV spots, one of which was the execrable Pamela Anderson spy series V.I.P. So he was likely still learning the nuances of acting for the camera, which might explain why his character is the calmest man hunting for his kidnapped son in the history of parents with kidnapped kids. To be fair, when he does finally get worked up, the results suggest why the director maybe told him to just go ahead and underplay the whole thing, emotions-wise:
But for all the lackluster elements, there was one moment that got my attention. During the climactic car chase, when the kidnapper has been exposed and is fleeing from Zolo and Avery, the two men go after him, leading to one of those “small cars zipping through crowded streets” scenes. Watch closely: Does this car actually hit a man on a scooter and send him flying, in a manner which strongly suggests this wasn’t a planned stunt but rather a surprise accident? I think so, but since the DVD release lacks a director’s commentary, I guess we’ll never know.
It’s a shame this movie doesn’t deliver even minimal thrills. Its director is Jack Sholder, a veteran of the industry who started his career making legitimately entertaining genre fare like Alone In The Dark (the good Jack Palance/Martin Landau one, not the awful Uwe Boll one), A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and The Hidden. By the time of Beeper, he was doing dreck like Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, so maybe the directing thing had already run its course. (Beeper was the last feature film he made.) But it feels like a film that was from another era even when it originally came out in 2002; watching it now, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was much older. Still, if nothing else, it delivers you the sight of Harvey Keitel and Ed Quinn searching for a car, then saying, “There she is—right there,” and making a big deal of pointing it out when it’s the only other car on the road.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Well, it’s had 18 years to do it thus far, so the odds aren’t looking good.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Nope. This is a movie-only affair. Which, when your sole offering is Beeper, is a little underwhelming. I really want to know more about how this thing was made. Really, a Harvey Keitel commentary track is what I’m looking for, people.