3 1/2 stars
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin
Director: Anton Corbijn
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: R for language
You can sense a John le Carre spy novel adaptation, often before his name turns up in the credits. The hero's cynicism at war with his skepticism, the professionalism at war with personal demons — in the spy master's gloomy, overcast world they're all spies "Who Came in from the Cold."
That's especially true in "A Most Wanted Man," a New World Order/old-school espionage thriller built around one last magnificent performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It's a modern story of spy games in post-9/11 Hamburg, set in a secret German unit that looks at "every dark-skinned man as someone who wants to kill us." That's the nightmare of Gunther Bachman (Hoffman) who, in his less-guarded moments, lets us see the terror of having another 9/11 happen on his watch.
A bearded Chechen Muslim (Grigoriy Dobrygin) swims ashore from a merchant ship, keeps his hoodie pulled low over his haunted/demented eyes and tries to blend into the port city. Gunther's team (Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl among them) is on to the guy the moment he visits a public space.
Why is he here? Gunther is curious enough to follow him without picking him up, to try to keep his hated state police rival at bay. But what about the American "observer" (Robin Wright), the embassy liaison who cleverly steers conversations clear of confrontation and toward cooperation — cooperation that benefits the U.S.?
Meanwhile, our crazy-eyed Islamist is hiding out amongst Germany's large Turkish population, which enlists a civil liberties lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to help. Is she naive enough to not ask the right questions? Can she spot trouble when she sees him?
Gunther & Co. also are after the Arabic head of an Islamic charity who Gunther is sure uses it to funnel money to terrorists. And there's a Hamburg banker, played by Willem Dafoe, the heir to an institution with a long history of doing below-the-table deals with whatever foe the West has at the moment — Soviets, then, Islamo-fascists now? Polished, rich, but a little nervous, he's worth leaning on, laying out just what dirt you have on him.
"You're threatening me!"
"Just sympathizing," Gunther purrs.
Hoffman is merely the first among equals in a stellar cast. Everybody speaks English (snatches of Turkish and Arabic pop up) with a hint of a German accent, and Hoffman gives Gunther the guttural growl of Richard Burton doing a German accent. It conjures up memories of half a century of le Carre adaptations, from "Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy" and "The Constant Gardener" to "The Russia House."
Wright is delicious as a smiling puppet mistress who, being American, calls more of the shots than the Germans would like to admit.
Dafoe beautifully plays a powerful man trying to hide how rattled he is, and McAdams, the closest this cast has to not-quite-right casting, is beguiling enough to make us wonder where her lawyer is foolishly idealist or cunning.
Screenwriter Andrew Bovell ("Lantana") gives Gunther an ever-present cigarette, as well as a regular seat at pretty much every bar in Hamburg. And director Anton Corbijn (George Clooney's assassin thriller, "The American") and his team paint a Hamburg with both a seedy, seaport side and the sheen of great wealth and power.
John le Carre's novels dwell on the grays in a black-and-white world where "You're either for us or against us" is a naive luxury no one can afford. "A Most Wanted Man" brings us into a new version of that world, where Islamists are the new Soviets and Germans have the role of patient, methodical plodders that Her Majesty's Secret Service usually fulfill in his stories, doing the legwork, running informers and following the faces and the money as they try to get to something bigger than any impulsive American drone strike would deliver.
And Hoffman, in his last great performance, embodies that patience, that professional annoyance at others' impatience and just a hint of worry that his "be patient" gamble could let a potential threat escape his clutches and cause the next terrorist incident in a world fearfully awaiting it.