This week I only managed to catch one film while on vacation, but it was a significant one. "A Most Wanted Man" is one of the final films (in addition to the Hunger Games franchise) of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and it's a strong reminder of the incredible talent we've lost. In this spy thriller from director Anton Corbijn, the actor shows off his knack for delivering rich, engaging performances.
The story takes place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks. Following reports that terrorist groups were operating out of Hamburg, a secret spy group has been formed to intercept any future terrorist plots. The group is led by Gunther Bachmann and they are put to the test when a mysterious half-Chechen, half-Russian man named Issa Karpov turns up in Hamburg. The heir to a large fortune from his corrupt father, suspicions arise as to his intentions in Germany. As tensions build, a tug of war ensues between Bachmann, the CIA and a young lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who is determined to protect her client from wrongful extradition.
Adapted from a John le Carre novel of the same name, the solemn tone of the film is similar to his previous adaptations like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". As with Gary Oldman's performance in that film, "A Most Wanted Man" defers much of its gravitas to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the brooding leader of the central spy agency. It's another superlative performance by the actor, effortlessly transforming himself into the character. He dons a deep voice (with an often indecipherable accent) and employs his trademark slouch when the plot gets really heavy. When he's on screen, the rest of the cast seems to modulate their performance in an act of subconscious reverence for the man and the character. It's truly a showcase role.
Aside from Hoffman though, the rest of the film falls short of greatness. As a former British intelligence agent himself, le Carré certainly knows about the inner workings of a spy operation. The story from the novel involves a lot of planning and hypothesizing as the players gather intelligence, which likely reflects the real nature of the job. In making the transfer to cinema however, screenwriter Andrew Bovell seems to have stuck too closely to the source material. The discussions and political maneuvering surrounding Karpov's links to terrorism are interesting, but there weren't enough suspense and thrills to compliment the drama. With such a stellar cast on hand (particularly Robin Wright, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi and Willem Dafoe), they could have been better used in order to raise the stakes. This is something that was done with the all-star cast of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" to great effect. Instead, this film is a very slow burn that never really catches a fire.
"A Most Wanted" may not be as thrilling as it should be, but it features a lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman that should not be missed. He was an actor at the top of his game and this a shining example of that. May his legacy live on through his incredible filmography.