Movie Review: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance haunts ‘A Most Wanted Man’

A most world-weary spy: Philip Seymour Hoffman in
A most world-weary spy: Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man."

‘A Most Wanted Man’
★★★

With a few exceptions, notably 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” two-hour adaptations generally don’t do justice to master spy novelist John Le Carré’s complex plots — and that’s unfortunately true of the slow, occasionally confusing “A Most Wanted Man.”

That shouldn’t really matter, though, for admirers of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not only because “Wanted Man” boasts his final starring role (aside from appearances in the final installments of “The Hunger Games”), but because he plays it particularly well. And because his portrayal includes accidental features that make it especially moving in retrospect, considering the manner of his death.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, head of a small counter-terrorist unit in Munich, where law-enforcement officials are still smarting from the humiliation of having unwittingly harbored the 9/11 hijackers.

Bachmann is a tough, old-school spy in the classic Le Carré mold. He’s a man who’s seen too much, done too many morally ambiguous things and now has no illusions. He lives for his work, chain smokes and drinks heavily, decent, but unhappy and essentially world-weary. And Hoffman doesn’t need a word of dialogue to convey the man’s underlying despair.

Bachmann has his eye on Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Chechen/Russian torture victim/prison escapee wanted as a suspected militant terrorist by Mohr (Ranier Bock), head of Munich’s conventional intelligence agency.

Mohr wants a splashy arrest. Bachmann wants to use Karpov as a lure for Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a moderate Muslim philanthropist he suspects of diverting funds to jihadists. Bachmann manages to fend off Mohr and the CIA (cheerily represented by Robin Wright) for 72 hours and uses the time to manipulate Karpov’s young, idealist attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) as she tries to help him collect a large inheritance from semi-shady banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe).

All of this is played out at a lethargic pace with a maximum of discussion and a minimum of suspense plus the ongoing distraction of showboating German accents from McAdams and Dafoe (Hoffman’s seems entirely natural, of course) — and occasional logical gaps resulting from radical plot condensation.

It all makes sense, eventually, and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (“Edge of Darkness”) gets credit for at least touching base with most of the moral complications in Le Carré’s novel. Just as director Anton Corbijn (who also made the excellent 2007 Joy Division drama “Control”) gets credit for capturing the bleak, brooding, chilly and cerebral quality we’ve come to expect from Le Carré thrillers since 1965’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” and for staging a devastating finale that’s almost enough on its own to make up for the feature-length hemming and hawing that precedes it.

Ultimately it’s really Hoffman that makes the finale work as well as it does. Especially since it provides him with an exit that might have seemed annoyingly inconclusive if it were just another performance, one of many more to come. But now, under these tragic circumstances, it’s no less than haunting.

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