Read on to learn whether this spy thriller is a slow burn or a flame out.
Chances are you never would have seen or heard of A Most Wanted Man, had its lead Phillip Seymour Hoffman not tragically died of an overdose earlier in the year. While those details and later worse news about his supplier status went public, there's been a dark cloud hanging over its release. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't see the last leading performance by one of the best Hollywood ever produced.
In the world of post-9/11 spycraft, the German Gunter (Hoffman) runs a secret team to root out terrorist groups throughout Germany. Although he's been effective in the field, a recent op has left his reputation stained with few answers from his bosses. But he doesn't have time to dwell, as news surfaces of a new source of Islamic charitable contributions that are linked to a terrorist organization based in Hamburg. At the center is the Chechin Muslim Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who wants to use his father's ill-gotten gains to give to those same Islamic charities. While tracking Issa, Gunter comes in contact with American Embassy official Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and Issa's human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) whose protection instantly puts her in the crosshairs. But it's Gunter who will soon learn the dangers of working in the shadows, as his past comes back to haunt him and threatens the progress he's made.
Director Anton Corbijn creates a world of dreary spy networks and shifting loyalties, each one seemingly ready to pounce on the other. He portrays Hamburg as a desperate city, ready to accommodate any and all who wish to populate it. He makes no effort to clean up the mess which the city has apparently become, and throws his stars right into its center; the effect is a gritty tale that never turns bright or cheerful, leaving many of the characters hugely affected by their involvement.
If any of this sounds sounds like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that's because Man is based on a novel by John le Carré who also wrote The Constant Gardener. Writer Andrew Bovell turns Carré's book into a slow burn, and audiences are better for the experience. le Carré is the master of understatement, his books serving as a bookend to the wild times and fast women of Ian Fleming's Bond novels. Man adds a new chapter to a growing volume of work that shows spycraft as it is, rather as we'd imagined it.
It's a topnotch cast and the audience must work to figure out who will side with whom and why. There's the powerful banker Willem Dafoe, whose bank has a history funding terrorist groups, and the Islamic philanthropist Abdulla (Homayoun Ershadi) who puts that money in all the wrong places. These are pitted against Gunter's help in Daniel Bruhl and Nia Hoss, but all of these could have been played by anyone. It's Hoffman who steals the show each time he graces the screen, portraying Gunter with an understated effort that sacrifices none of the intensity of a James Bond or Jack Ryan. In many ways, Gunter is a pawn for a much more serious game that's levels above him or his team. When that moment of betrayal arrives, it's all the more stinging because Director Corbijn has imbued him with such subtly that his fall is all the more stunning Man is filled with such performances, such as the American Wright, her dark short hair and pale features matching the misery and grittiness of Hamburg. The one who seems out of place here is McAdams - while I'm not ready to call her unsuited for such dark ensembles, her style is too Hollywood and suffers alongside Hoffman and others.
A Most Wanted Man succeeds in the way Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Zero Dark Thirty does, by making spycraft feel tedious and frustrating, rather than filled with explosions or scantily clad women. Hoffman might get another Oscar nom based solely on his sorted death, but his performance is terrific and would have deserved serious consideration regardless. Regardless, it's a fitting end to a career filled with amazing performances and should be at the top of your To-Do List once other Summer fare have been explored.
A Most Wanted Man is rated R for language and has a runtime of 121 minutes.