Review: A Most Wanted Man (Sundance 2014)
REVIEW: A MOST WANTED MAN comes along at a time when John le Carré adaptations are especially hot thanks to the success of THE CONSTANT GARDENER and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. This one is based on one of his more recent novels, with his customary spy “trade-craft” now happening in a post 9-11 world. The story is based in Hamburg, one of the world's biggest port cities, and as the film explains, a hot-bed of espionage with the threat of terrorists using the port being constant.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a world-weary spy very much in the mold of le Carré's famous anti-heroes, such as George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman) and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD's Alex Leamas. Hoffman's interpretation of Bachmann seems directly inspired by Richard Burton's performance as Leamas in the 1965 film of SPY, with him adopting a similarly rumpled look, sporting cheap suits, a big gut, and constantly chain-smoking or downing glasses of whiskey. Like Leamas, his surface weaknesses hide a cunning operator, and once Dobrygin's Issa enters the city, his Machiavellian planning goes into practice.
Hoffman is a natural for this world, and even manages to pull off a convincing (to my ears anyway) German accent, that's not too over-the-top or showy. Truth be told, for a le Carré adaptation A MOST WANTED MAN is rather dull, even if director Anton Corbijn's direction is stylish. Hoffman pretty much saves the movie, which often moves along at a snail's pace and feels overly familiar, and predictable, with shadowy un-trustworthy American spies (embodied by Robin Wright- sporting a menacing black dye-job) lurking about ready to pounce on the impossibly innocent Issa.
This is Corbijn's second attempt at an international thriller, following THE AMERICAN, and while this isn't quite the art-house mood piece that was, it never generates much excitement outside the last fifteen minutes. Part of the problem is that other than Hoffman and the very-effective Dobrygin, the rest of the casting seems odd. Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams get to try German accents too, with Dafoe's shady banker feeling a bit under-cooked, while McAdams feels really miscast as the immigration lawyer trying to protect Issa. She's never awful, but her accent comes and goes, and she feels too famous to be playing what's actually a fairly minor part. Even stranger is the addition of Daniel Bruhl to the cast. He may be one of the few people in the film to actually be German, but it feels like his entire role was left on the cutting room floor. He shows up in the background in lots of scenes, but all of his dialogue save for the occasional line like “hello” seem to have been cut. It's bizarre, but at 121 minutes the film already drags so maybe that's not a bad thing. It certainly seems like a waste of such a talented actor.
Still, I have to stop short of giving A MOST WANTED MAN an all-out negative review as Hoffman really is great, and makes the film worth seeing. Even as a pretty solid le Carré fan, the film felt underwhelming to me, but it can't be denied Hoffman seems born to be part of this world. His performance, and some interesting visuals from Corbijn save this from feeling too pedestrian even if it is ultimately a disappointment.