Philip Seymour Hoffman could do more with a four-letter obscenity than some actors could with a soliloquy.
The title “A Most Wanted Man” refers to another character, but Mr. Hoffman, who died in February, delivers a shrewd, powerhouse performance in the movie version of John le Carre’s 2008 novel set in Germany. He has one especially memorable scene in which emotions pass over his face and you watch him shift from shock to incredulity to raw outrage as if he’s opening a combination safe and precisely spinning from one number to the next.
The spy thriller from director Anton Corbijn begins with Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a 26-year-old who is half-Chechen, half-Russian, secretly arriving in Hamburg. That city is significant because it‘s where Mohammed Atta and other Sept. 11 plotters lived for a time.
'A Most Wanted Man' movie trailer
A Chechen Muslim illegally immigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught in the international war on terror.
The clandestine appearance of a man who some suspect is an escaped militant jihadist — with the dangerous combination of money and contacts in the Islamic community — raises all sorts of red flags with agents from Germany and the United States.
Chief among them is Gunther Bachmann (Mr. Hoffman), who heads a secretive anti-terror unit that works under the radar for Germany’s intelligence services to cultivate sources within Hamburg’s Islamic community. He sees Issa as bait: “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”
The big game in this instance could be a popular Muslim academic and charity fundraiser, Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who might be funneling money to terrorist organizations. But to get to the shark, if he is a shark, Gunther needs to cast a wide net that also includes a young lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), from a human rights organization, along with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), the head of a private bank.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe.
Rating: R for language.
Gunther is not operating in a vacuum, as CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and others up and down the German intelligence chain prove in overt and covert ways. It’s a little confusing at first, as you figure out who is who, but in the end you will know enough to grasp what you have just witnessed.
What distinguishes “A Most Wanted Man” is the performances, including by Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl as detectives on Gunther’s team; the Hamburg and Berlin backdrops echoing the skulduggery, enormity and impersonal nature of the task at hand; and the golden nuggets of dialogue. At one point Gunther says he has given his word on something, “and this time, I want it to mean something,” and Ms. Wright suggests, “Every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he?”
Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Wright quietly thrust and parry as they acknowledge distrust and how old habits — the other’s, of course — die hard. But they’re living in a world fraught with and frightened of terrorism and with new interpretations of justice. If a suspect who is allowed to stay free sets off a bomb, fingers will be quickly pointed and blame assigned.
Even those supposedly on the same side and country have different agendas and alliances and hard-charging or shadowy tactics that range from eavesdropping in a public place to slamming a black hood over someone’s head and hustling the person into a van.
“A Most Wanted Man” is closer to Mr. Corbijn’s 2010 suspense thriller “The American,” starring George Clooney as an American who crafts guns for assassins, than “Control,” his 2007 biopic of Ian Curtis, the suicidal lead singer of Joy Division. Here, he ratchets up the tension during the signing of some documents as if he were filming the assembling or disarming of a bomb.
Screenwriter Andrew Bovell (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Lantana,” “Edge of Darkness”) alters a final exchange from the novel and makes it wordless, magnifying its power. At that point, there really is nothing left to say, other than an expletive.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: email@example.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies. First Published July 24, 2014 8:00 PM