A Most Wanted Man is based on a novel by espionage ace John le Carré, which should tell you this isn't a Jason Bourne action flick filled with car crashes and hand-to-hand combat. Director Anton Corbijn's idea of action is a fat man in a foot chase.
Neither is this the sort of cerebral somnambulism that the most recent le Carré adaptation — 2011's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — turned out to be. Part of the reason is topicality: contemporary terrorism, not the Cold War. And part of the reason is Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, at once elegaic and thrilling.
The late Oscar winner plays Gunther Bachmann, leading Hamburg, Germany's antiterrorism security force. Gunther is haunted by his agency's security lapses that allowed the 9/11 attacks to be plotted beneath their noses, and he's determined to investigate any stirrings in the Muslim community. It isn't a showy role; this is, after all, a character trained to blend in. But it is meticulously performed, weary and rumpled, perhaps with hindsight hints of the actor's personal decline.
Frankly, Hoffman looks terrible, morbidly obese, chronically tired, with bags under his eyes so pronounced they're luggage. A chain smoker's wheeze and shortness of breath walking up stairs suggests a body failing. These don't appear to be the affected traits of an actor but a death rattle caught on camera.
Yet Hoffman is completely in control of the role and German accent, with each gesture revealing small details of this clandestine character: the way Gunther orders coffee, spiking it from a flask, the way he interrupts his sense of unerring control to take a swing at an offending drunk. The way he mocks U.S. agents trailing his latest investigation: "I have been observed by Americans before. It usually doesn't end well."
Neither will this case, as those familiar with le Carré's cloak-and-dagger fatalism can guess. In the opening minutes, a brutally tortured Chechen-Russian immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg's Muslim neighborhood. He claims to be Issa Karpov, laying claim to a fortune stolen by his father, a deadly corrupt military man. Issa wishes to donate the money to worthy charities, atoning for the sins of his father. Gunther knows what that money can do in the wrong hands, and he doesn't trust Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who Issa is dealing with.
Gunther wants the exchange to occur, so he can trace the money to terrorist cells. So, he and his agents must hang back, hoping they don't lose track of Issa or Abdullah, or that the CIA will swoop in, spoiling his case. Robin Wright co-stars as an CIA agent assuring Gunther that the U.S. is simply a curious observer.
Complicating the case is human rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), assisting Issa's plan to obtain the money from his father's banker (Willem Dafoe). Annabel and Issa become partners then lovers, allowing Gunther another angle to keep the pressure on.
Corbijn keeps the intrigue uncluttered, guided by Andrew Bovell's economical adapted screenplay. The pacing of A Most Wanted Man, a movie without any real dramatic crescendos, can get tedious without complete attention that the movie earns. It's nothing new, with clues uncovered in safety deposit boxes, or passed in cigarette packs, with surprising informants identified and operatives in just the right places and time. Nothing special except its fallen star, providing his own accomplished epitaph.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.