A Most Wanted Man review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In one of the final roles of his career, Philip Seymour Hoffman seamlessly blends into the role of a world-weary German espionage agent dealing with Muslim affairs in Hamburg (the home base of the 9/11 hijackers). His quiet and gravelly voice with his tired expression come almost too naturally to Hoffman. One has to wonder how much of this was either just acting or drawing from his own life of personal demons. It’s a tragic reminder of a once revered actor, but also one of the best elements of an otherwise ho-hum espionage thriller.
In the post-9/11 setting of Germany, Chechen/Russian refugee Issa Karpov has illegally entered the country seeking asylum and is suspected to be a terrorist. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads an agency that spies on the Muslim community. His aspirations are not too high having been demoted to this position without the proper trust or materials to carry out this level of security. In addition to tailing Karpov, another target is Dr. Abdullah, a Muslim philanthropist believed to be funneling in money for terrorists acts. They’re naturally going to cross paths. Further complicating these investigations, however, are some interested parties that include German security official Mohr (Rainer Bock), American diplomat Sullivan (Robin Wright) and immigration lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams).
Bachmann does his best to play everyone in hopes that he can find out more about Karpov before his team nabs him. He holds Annabel in his custody for secretly aiding Karpov, hoping she’ll help him out. He does his best to keep Sullivan at bay in hopes that her influence won’t spring the trap too early. Oh, and there’s a banker involved as well (Willem Dafoe) who is holding the money of Karpov’s father. There are so many characters at play in this little dance of immigration and terrorism politics, not including Bachmann’s superiors that play a role as well.
Director Anton Corbijn does his best to create tension from a cold and quiet thriller. Not a single gun is fired, there’s barely any fights and the climactic car crash is far too quick. It’s an intricate spy game where characters appear two steps ahead or behind their allies and enemies. Just when it seems Bachmann has a lead, he’s just a few hours late. Just when Karpov has found an out, the hole gets deeper. It’s a frustrating game of stops and starts bogged down in the bureaucracy of trying to keep things safe and legal. Bachmann hangs for dear life to keep that thin thread intact amid the shears of a pushy government and dangerous terrorists.
Yet the mundanity of it all is ratcheted down to a level that requires the highest of attention levels. As a thriller, this isn’t much to keep you on the edge of your seat considering the wide enough margins between Karpov and the government. The film does its best to create some real tension from such small events as when Bachmann bites his nails if a bank document is signed. But it works best as a portrait of lost humanity in a world that has lost its trust for foreigners. Hamburg appears as a depressed metropolis of unease and a populace of uncertain intentions.
A Most Wanted Man is a meticulous thriller, slow and drab, but kept intriguing through Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance alone. He embodies the damaged human spirit of a world gone mad with paranoia on all fronts. His stumbling and mumbling show all the wear and tear of a dinosaur for a secure society without too much government or unchecked terrorism. It’s a depressing, yet telling performance that hits home a little hard for such a focus on a once great actor. Hoffman is the glue that holds this concise tale of a plot-heavy investigation which may be too detailed and lethargic for its own good.