John le Carre is sort of the thinking man’s John Grisham, and is a master at crafting tense but understated thrillers which engage his audience, provided they pay attention. Anton Corbijn has successfully translated this to the screen in “A Most Wanted Man” – though unfortunately it’s not quite on the level of Thomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the last le Carre adaptation to hit the big screen. “A Most Wanted Man” works better as a character study than a political thriller, and its highlight is by far its cast, led by the late and incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final performances.
Taking place in a post-9/11 Hamburg, “A Most Wanted Man” follows Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence officer who’s tracking two persons of interest – a Muslim doctor (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be funneling small amounts of charity donations to a terrorist network, and a Russian/Chechen fugitive named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s about to come into a large inheritance. Rachel McAdams plays a lawyer who specializes in finding asylum for people like Issa, while Willem Dafoe, as a banker holding the key (literally) to Issa’s windfall, also gets caught up in Bachmann’s plans.
McAdams’ and Dafoe’s characters, in particular, are not given much agency in the film and seem to fall easily into acting as moles for the government, though the relationship that develops between Issa and McAdams’ Annabel is quite lovely, giving the film some heart. So, too, does Hoffman’s Bachmann performance. This is a hard-boiled, cynical government operative who has seen the very worst in people, but he reveals himself to be something of an optimist. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to it than that. The outcome of all the political maneuvering, in the end, feels very much like something that’s been done many times before.
Ultimately, the film is left to feel a little surface-y, almost too easy to follow, with its “trust no one” message telegraphed in neon lights. Luckily its very watchable cast makes up for what its plot inherently lacks in compelling the audience to go along for the journey.