Sundance Review: 'A Most Wanted Man'

Spy films are still a dime a dozen these days, thanks to a box office glutted with all manner of the genre pictures, from the continued reinvention of James Bond to the newly launched attempt to make the oft-played Jack Ryan relevant again to the recently twisted take on the Bourne franchise. Yet the spying game hasn’t evolved too much over the years, with action ramping up as smarts take a nosedive – for films about “intelligence,” few are actually smart enough to engage on more than just a surface level (or even a, “hey, look how cool that sequence with the train and the guy and the other guy and the thing was!” level). This is all to say that there is a market and a space for a different, smarter take on the spy story – and the adapted works of author John le Carre continue to admirably fill that need

The material is a natural fit for director Anton Corbijn, who seems to like directing films about slowly fitting together seemingly disparate pieces just as much as le Carre likes writing material with the same sense of style and pacing. “A Most Wanted Man” is a thoroughly modern tale about current anti-terrorism measures that still retains a classic sensibility and feel. Grigoriy Dorbygin stars as Isa, a half-Russian, half-Chechen immigrant who has fled his homeland for Hamburg, Germany. Allegedly a member of a military group dedicated to jihadist measures, Isa is soon on the radar of a clandestine spying outfit bent on uncovering terrorist activities, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther. But Isa doesn’t seem to want to blow anything up or hurt anyone – he just wants a little refuge and to clear out an account left to him by his father at a local bank, run by Willem Dafoe’s Tommy Brue. When he enlists the help of local lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), just who is good and who is bad becomes all the more fuzzy, and the plot of the film starts to unexpectedly intersect with Gunther’s pet case involving a local academic who may actually be supplying money to terrorist groups.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the main event here, and despite some troubles with his essentially indeterminate accent (his name may smack of Germanic roots, but even Hoffman can’t quite seem to nail a believable way of telegraphing those roots via his voice), he turns in another solid, compelling performance. Hoffman is uniquely adept at making both big moments (literal screaming in the streets) and smaller bits (a stray smile here, a tossed off comment there) count in equal measure. This is the kind of performance that Hoffman can do in his sleep, but the actor never makes it seem as if he’s given less than his all, a nifty trick that few other working actors can pull off so well.

The rest of the cast does not fare quite as well, however. While Hoffman’s natural charms and gravitas more than overtake his iffy accent work, Rachel McAdams isn’t nearly as lucky. McAdams’ German accent is woefully bad, and it detracts from her entire performance as she slips in and out of it, and then basically under and over it, never making it sound believable in the least, and often just wholesale abandoning it. When Gunther tells Annabel that she is out of her depth, Hoffman may as well be speaking directly to McAdams.

Elsewhere, other reasonably big names like Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, and Daniel Bruhl are saddled with minor supporting roles that give them little to do. Dafoe is believably bewildered by the situation at hand, but he doesn’t do anything particularly unique with the role, and it’s dismayingly easy to imagine another actor in the role. Wright and Bruhl have both been on a roll as of late – the actress with her star turn in Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the actor burning up the screen in Ron Howard’s “Rush” – but “A Most Wanted Man” doesn’t give them a chance to shine, and they’re about as important and good-looking as the film’s meticulously crafted sets.

And what sets they are. While “A Most Wanted Man” isn’t a period-set piece like 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” that same attention to detail and aesthetics is consistently on display here. Kitted out with slick interiors, dingy office space, and visually compelling wide shots, the look and feel of “A Most Wanted Man” is both inviting and indicative of the kind of care that is applied to le Carre’s works. Benoit Delholmme’s cinematography is crisp and clean, and even when the film’s narrative flatlines, it remains engagingly lensed.

As ever, le Carre remains interested in subverting the spy genre in a major way (though even “A Most Wanted Man” plays around with the old “something bad happened in Beirut” slice of story) – in his world, spying isn’t a sexy business, it’s just like any other business, one prone to both double-crossing and just plain boredom. The film sags in the middle, as Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell struggle to push pieces of narrative together while also unfurling true motivations and emotions. And while the final act might not surprise or stun, it does feature some classic le Carre movements, some trademark Corbijn ease, and a terrifying Hoffman bellowing at the sky – not so bad for just another spy film.

SCORE: 8.3 / 10