Running Time: 121 mins.                      Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Anton Corbijn

Genre: Thriller

Country: UK/USA/Germany

Language: English

Distributor: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Cast: Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Mehdi Dehbi, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Kostja Ullmann, Homayoun Ershadi


What is it like to be a spy?  Some cynics say that it’s a game indulged by its proponents; that our spies know their spies and vice versa, and the groups, however hostile their countries are to each other, simply exchange information freely, thereby keeping their jobs.  Others, less cynical and more naive, think that spies are like 007, licensed to kill, engaged in high stakes acrobatics in pursuit of subversives.

If you want to know the real story, however, you probably can do a lot worse than to peruse the novels of John Le Carre, who became a superstar writer with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (in which an operative watches as an agent is shot by East German sentries).  Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man, which like The Spy in its emphasis on twists and turns and, best of all, duplicity, has been successfully adapted into a tense thriller, but one which will not necessarily satisfy a mainstream audience that likes more guns and faster action. While Anton Corbijn’s movie version has some exceptionally melodramatic action in its conclusion, most of the tale, told amid the gray skies of Hamburg Germany, features people on both sides who are likewise gray for the most part.  They lack the vibrant colors we always find in a James Bond episode, but they make up for it by showing us a more authentic, realistic view of the cloak-and-dagger industry than Hollywood generally provides.

And best of all, Andrew Bovell’s screenplay gives us a glorious look at the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Gunter Bachmann, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, gone-to-pot German operative who, unlike rivals in the German anti-terrorist organization, does not officially exist.  The paper-pushing bureaucrats who work on the books are more interested in quick arrests, while Bachmann favors patience in order to amass sufficient evidence to make convictions stick.  What’s more, Bachmann is eager to catch the big fish, allowing the smaller ones to get away once they serve their purpose as bait.

In the two-hour tale, one in which there is not a wasted minute, we in the audience are apprised that the German government felt humiliated at being unable to prevent the attack on New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11.  Mohammed Atta, who planned the disaster from Hamburg, could have been captured before leaving Germany and heading for New York, but Germany’s agency modeled after our Homeland Security delayed in order to amass more evidence and now is unwilling to do the same when going after terrorists.  The pressure is on Bachmann to bring in Professor Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who has been contributing money to a terror group masquerading as a Cyprus shipping company.  Bachmann’s plan calls for exploiting Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who is half Russian, half Chechen, a man who had been tortured in Russia, who seeks asylum in Germany, and can be useful in trapping Abdullah.

In an intricately plotted tory, Karpov, with his leftist lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) at his side, is set to claim an inheritance of “tens and millions of Euros” from his father, “a murderer” in Karpov’s eyes, but Karpov must convince a banker, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) that he is the rightful heir to the fortune. Karpov is unaware that he is being used as bait—though his lawyer, the banker and Bachmann are in on the scheme.

Director Corbijn, whose previous movie THE AMERICAN focuses on an assassin who hides out in Italy awaiting one last assignment, and whose CONTROL features a look at singer Ian Curtis (Joy Division) who committed suicide at the age of 23, now treats us to a look at the spy industry with the aim, perhaps, of showing that it’s not altogether different from fields like accounting.  Yet there is considerable excitement to the job.  Bachmann is able to set up surveillance equipment in a bank and in a room that he uses temporarily to imprison Karpov’s lawyer, hoping to convince her to play along with the scheme to nail Faisal Abdullah through the smaller fish, Karpov.  But though a trap is set, nobody trusts anyone else, and for good reason.  American CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) is brought into the game, but she has an agenda of her own that conflicts with that of Bachmann.  Brue, the banker, reluctantly throws his hat into the ring; seemingly willing to declare Karpov is the owner of the inheritance.  The bureaucrats are willing to give Bachmann enough netting to snare both the small fish and the large ones, but they cannot be trusted to be a patient as Bachmann.

A MOST WANTED MAN is more like TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY than GOLDFINGER, but is more accessible, has more physical action, and is perhaps better performed given the talent of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated.  The actors speak English, though in reality all but the American agent are talking in German, and Hoffman in particular affects a Teutonic accent throughout while McAdams, physically a knockout, speaks the tongue with a British emphasis.  Benoit Delhomme shoots on location in Hamburg (over a period of 38 days with two days in Berlin), a city of 1.8 million that looks so dismal that you don’t wonder that Northern Europeans flock to Greece and Spain for a look at the sun.


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