A Most Wanted Man (2014) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 122 min.

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright, Homayoun Ershadi, Franz Hartwig, Daniel Bruhl
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Andrew Bovell (based on the book by John Le Carre)

Review published August 4, 2014

A Most Wanted Man represents the final completed performance on the big screen for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Catching Fire, The Master), and he delivers yet another mesmerizing performance, this time a bit more on the slow simmer end.  The film is adapted from the John le Carre novel of the same name from 2008, and while many adaptation of the spymaster's work can be slow and confusing for the mainstream moviegoer, the more small-scale and personal events of A Most Wanted Man will be readily understood by those with just a minimal amount of understanding of how counterterrorist spy operations work.

The film takes place in a post-9/11 society, in Hamburg, Germany, where a spy named Gunter Bachmann heads a small splinter counterterrorist program. His latest assignment is to keep tabs on a recently emigrated half-Chechen Russian man calling himself Issa Karpov (Dobrygin, How I Ended This Summer).  Bachmann immediately gets in touch with Karpov's main contact in town, Annabel Richter (McAdams, About Time), a bleeding-heart attorney and social worker trying to help the mysterious Muslim man recover a massive inheritance left to him by his deceased father, whose money may have come through heinous misdeeds on the terrorist front.  With the GSG-9 (Germany's formal anti-terrorist organization) and the American CIA trying to squeeze in and make sure everything gets squashed before calamity ensues, Bachmann has more than his hands full trying to corral Karpov and keep harm from happening to his accomplices and his unit. 

A Most Wanted Man benefits from a cast of well-known actors, most of whom are using accents, including a relatively spot-on (i.e. not cartoonish) German inflection delivered by Hoffman as Bachmann. Understated performances are the name of the game in a Le Carre adaptation, and in Corbijn's (The American, Control) film, we're given about as low-key an ensemble as we can get and still be intellectually and emotionally invested in what happens.  As with most Le Carre works, the story underneath the main one is that of how the spy game chews up its participants and spits them out, over and again, until they can't do anything but continue the grind that's consuming them.  There's also the duplicitous nature of spies, not only in having to play dual roles, but also how they often have to do some fairly underhanded things to ultimately do what they feel is right, though it often looks like, from outside observance, that they aren't particularly more moral than the people they surveil.

If you're at all into spy yarns, you'll likely find A Most Wanted Man to be intelligent, absorbing, nuanced, and stimulating in ways the typical spy action thrillers just aren't.  This isn't The Bourne Identity, with fast-flying action.  Most of the excitement comes through the twists and turns from the proverbial knives these characters stick in each others' backs when trying to manipulate the outcome in their favor.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo