Tuesday, May 21, 2024


This has become the unfortunate year of goodbye performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The talented actor, who left us far too early in a February drug death, appeared in John Slattery’s directorial debut, “God’s Pocket,” and now the release of “A Most Wanted Man” concludes Hoffman’s posthumous big-screen farewell save for an appearance from canned footage in the upcoming “Hunger Games” installment.

072514i A Most Wanted Man“A Most Wanted Man” is a fitting one, as Hoffman’s role of Günther Bachmann, the head of a spare German intelligence unit charged in the wake of 9/11 to suss out radical Islamic terrorist cells, requires range, nuance and an accent – which you could see a lesser actor botching to a campy, awful degree. The film, based on spymaster John le Carré’s 21st novel, takes place in Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta set up the 9/11 attacks allegedly because intelligence was weak or nonexistent. Bachman and his ragtag team take to their task very seriously and are dogged in their pursuit of new “assets.” Like most characters in le Carré novels, Bachmann harbors a troubled past (a Class A oversight in Beirut gets some unfortunates killed) and has little time for anything but work. Except good scotch, which he consumes plenty of.

In the hands of Anton Corbijn, the music videographer who came into his own as a feature filmmaker with the dark, moving bio-pic of Ian Curtis, “Control” (2007) and the Euro-based George Clooney intrigue-thriller, “The American” (2010), “A Most Wanted Man” unfurls like an art house version of a “Bourne” film, where subterfuge and brain games replace alley-hopping pursuits. The rub comes in the form of a half-Russian, half-Chechen named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who enters Hamburg illegally (he literally pops out of the ground) and has ties to Islamic factions – raising the fear he has come to the ethnically intermixed port to ignite dormant terrorist cells. His arrival is no secret, and everyone from Bachmann and his group to the head of intelligence ops (Rainer Bock) and the Germany-based CIA operative (a confident Robin Wright, with cropped, inky hair) wants him. As a result, Issa becomes a plot casualty, little more than a MacGuffin for the three factions to jockey over. Bachmann wants him as an asset to snare bigger fish, intel ops wants the “bomb blowing up in a public square” risk off the street and the murky American agenda shifts with each changing lay of the political landscape.

The other key players, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), the human rights attorney who is trying to help shelter Issa and get him papers, and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), the investment banker who dabbles in soiled Russian money and holds 10 million-plus euro that Issa has claim to, deepen the tangled web. At the seams too are the Muslim woman (Derya Alabora) who harbors Issa initially, Bachmann’s mole (Mehdi Dehbi) and the big-wig Islamic philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) who might not be all he appears to be. In short, the plot of “A Most Wanted Man,” like any le Carré yarn, has a lot of moving parts, and it’s best to pay attention if you want to keep up.

Le Carré, who served in British intelligence, has always penned cerebral fables of spooky machination with unfathomable authenticity (the character of Issa is based loosely on a true story). The transition to the big screen, however, with its shifting plots, is a high-wire act not meant for a novice, and because such challenges have largely been taken seriously, the results have been near gold, if not golden. Tomas Alfredson (”Let the Right One In”) spun up an edgy adaptation of the eternally serpentining “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with masterful skill in 2011, and while Corbijn’s stab might not be as accomplished, or even up to Fernando Meirelles’ gritty go at “The Constant Gardner” in 2005, he’s also working with a lesser le Carré opus.

It’s the taut parley between Hoffman, Bock, Wright and even Dafoe that raise up the film. These are master actors working off of each other with complementary oneupmanship. McAdams, unfortunately, is the odd duck out. She’s not able to carry German cred the way Hoffman and Dafoe do, plus she’s handed a flat idealist sans the haunted past that Bachmann and Brue are blessed with. Overall, the casting is an oddity, a risky move bringing in outliers to play in a Dutchman’s film taking place on German soil and based on a Brit’s novel. It pays off no matter, though Daniel Brühl, who was so excellent as the race car driver Niki Lauda in “Crash” sits idly throughout sifting mechanically through surveillance tapes and other digital archives for Bachmann – and that’s all he does. It’s either a missed opportunity or the biggest use of a jumbo jet to cross a street. Still, Corbijn brings it all together in compelling fashion. It might not be top-shelf le Carré, but it is Hoffman at his finest.

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Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.