In Anton Corbijn’s foreign espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman lends his take on an unconventional looking German intelligence agent, one without the usual dashing attributes associated with cinematic spies. Although sprinkled with cerebral-minded intrigue and conducting its atmospheric tension in methodical fashion, A Most Wanted Man feels relentlessly sluggish in its execution to live up to its labored political-coated drama. This low-energy, plodding spy showcase has its isolated highlights in sleek suspense, but fails to drive home any genuine revelations about its touchy subject matter regarding counter-intelligence suspicion and terrorist paranoia. Despite solid and committed performances, it’s a slow burn of a thriller that simply lingers without fortifying any convincing punch.
Corbijn’s intelligence operative narrative is based upon a John le Carré novel. Other le Carre adaptations, such as The Tailor of Panama and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, have resonated with gripping anticipation and intense introspection. A Most Wanted Man, however, is oddly stillborn, never really engaging the viewer in its web of sketchy mystery and surveillance. One can appreciate the film’s mechanical vibes and the psychological by-the-numbers approach to the premise. Still, Corbijn’s straight-laced direction and screenwriter Andrew Bovell’s stoic script render the film curiously dark and muted, without any mouth-watering payoff to behold. Sure, not all spy thrillers need to embrace a full throttle mode just for the sake of sensationalism. Still, A Most Wanted Man feels needlessly restrained and moping.
Hamburg-based intelligence officer Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) will not be mistaken for a debonair James Bond any time soon; he’s paunchy, pale, unshaven, and strung out on an endless supply of booze and cigarettes. Bachmann and his surveillance team must make heads and tails out of a delicate assignment–keeping tabs on a young Chechen Muslim immigrant named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). The pressure is on for Bachmann and his unit to uncover the mysterious presence of Issa’s existence within their region. After all, it was in Hamburg where the sinister 9/11 attacks were hatched and carried out accordingly. So Bachmann and his unit cannot afford to screw up the monitoring of the crafty Karpov in the attempt to unravel whatever potential terrorist agenda he and his associates may have in mind.
To complicate matters further with this mission to crush any developing terrorism activities there is a stand-off as to what to do with Karpov as the observational tactics move along. The problem is that the German and American authorities want Karpov arrested immediately and taken into custody. Bachmann, on the other hand, feels that this plan is too hasty, and wants the suspect untouched so that he can possibly lead them to his other handlers at large.
It is a shame that A Most Wanted Man gets bogged down in talky spurts, and the constant reinforcement of stakeouts, secret meetings, and techno-eavesdropping becomes rather redundant and anti-climatic. It is a thrill watching Hoffman go through the motions as a hefty and haggard investigator involved in a cat and mouse game of chance with an immigrant menace that may or may not be connected to a bigger picture of societal destruction, but so much of the 122-minute film feels interminable in its prolonged viewing of mounting a “waiting game” that never quite reaches any compelling heights.
Hoffman is saddled with lackluster material that never reasonably exploits Bachmann’s shortcomings or gives cause to his unassuming skills as a scruffy spy that presumably came in from the cold. The supporting cast are effective for the most part. Rachel McAdams does her duty as a radiant leftist lawyer thrown into the mix, the always impish Willem Dafoe breathes life into his unctuous banker, and Robin Wright is on hand to present a foil as a bothersome CIA agent. Dobrygin, meanwhile, is convincing as the shadowy Karpov, whose very livelihood serves as a head-scratching “what do we do” pause for the administrative brass waiting to pounce on him. Corbijn has assembled a fine cast of performers, yet still comes up with a disjointed jigsaw puzzle. Playing unfocused spy games in A Most Wanted Man leaves this peek-a-boo thriller feeling tired and unwanted.
— Frank Ochieng