Hoffman Delivers, As Always, In Joyless "A Most Wanted Man"

Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man” is a bittersweet curtain call for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a subdued work that calls for an equally subdued performance from a typically volatile leading man. Hoffman delivers, of course. He always did. But a final, muted performance in a laboriously low-key spy thriller only exacerbates the pain of losing a historically great acting talent. As always, it’s a thrill to see Hoffman tackle something different, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that “A Most Wanted Man” isn’t worthy of the man’s talents, let alone his final lead performance.

Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann, a scruffy German spy in charge of a shadowy anti-terror unit. He reports to no one but communicates with many, from a CIA agent (Robin Wright) to a civil rights attorney (Rachel McAdams) who’s taken an interest in one of Bachmann’s targets of surveillance – a half-Chechen, half Russian political refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) that may or may not be a threat against the public. As our savvy hero tugs at threads of possible terrorist activity, he falls into a web of paranoia made worse by his heavy drinking habit.

From Corbijn’s opening shot of waves crashing into a dock, liquidity is recurring motif, with characters’ motivations as fluid as the pic’s parade of adult beverages. Truth isn’t a matter of fact in their world, but a matter of perception, each character residing in an endless, grey haze somewhere between good and evil. It’s not even clear that Bachmann’s scheming is above board, but Hoffman masterfully communicates the characters’ undying passion for his work. Even in a moderately quiet performance, the actor’s thundering ferocity cuts through.

The pic is elegant to a fault, stubbornly keeping its cool at the expense of tension. Not nearly as stylish as the last big screen adaptation of a John Le Carre novel – 2011’s similarly sterile “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – Corbijn’s film can’t make up for in visuals what it lacks in narrative kick, making for a story that slickly spins its wheels into a textbook anticlimax. Fortunately, its final images are among its best, painting a stark, effective portrait of the oft unspoken heartache of those working in anti-terror operations. When it comes to real-life espionage, it’s difficult to comprehend how quickly defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory, but the film relays the notion effectively.

The picture’s commitment to realism is admirable, but it makes for a slog of a thriller, one that confirms that “art imitating life” isn’t nearly as interesting as the other way around. A spy yarn in which words are the only weapons and heroes and villains are interchangeable might be true to life, but it isn’t very cinematic, nor is the spotty accent work from a largely American cast. But without said cast – Hoffman in particular – it’d be a complete chore that few would pay mind to and even fewer would praise. Removed from its place in history as a legend’s final lead role, “A Most Wanted Man” is easy to admire from afar, damn near impossible to enjoy.

J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 25, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Roadside Attractions (Lionsgate)
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl
MPAA Rating: R (for language)