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A Most Wanted Man

It takes away a little of the sting—just a little—of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s premature death to know that in his last film (the Hunger Games sequels don’t count) he got to play a role he was born for, one of John le Carre’s world-weary but still committed intelligence operatives. (You don’t want to call them “spies”—especially in the post-James Bond era, that tarts them up too much.)

Looking at least 15 year older than his 46 years and with an accent and enunciation that sometimes seem to be channeling Sydney Greenstreet, Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, a German operative on a career downslide after a failed mission in Beirut. He now heads a secret team in Hamburg whose job is to keep an eye on the Islamic community for possible terrorist activity. (You may not recall that this grey port city was where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators hatched the Sept. 11 attacks, but the German government remembers very well.)

Bachmann and his crew believe that a prominent Islamic philanthropist, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), has been funneling money to terrorists. Conflicted because Abdullah publicly is a proponent of peace and collaboration, Bachmann develops a plan to control him.

The other players in his scheme include Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen refugee wanted by the government; Tommy Brue (an unusually dapper Willem Dafoe), a British banker whose father laundered money for the Russian mafia, and Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights attorney trying to help Issa.

The screenplay by Andrew Bovell (Lantana) reworks le Carre’s novel substantially, though as executive producer of the film he presumably approved. Romantic threads are minimized, as is le Carre’s outrage at heavy handed American anti-terrorism tactics (so strongly felt when he published the book in 2008 that some critics felt it was less a novel than a polemic). And Bachmann becomes the central figure, a European counterpart to George Smiley. (In a recent New York Times piece, le Carre said that Hoffman was the only American actor who could play Smiley.)

What remains of le Carre’s critique is leveled at international intelligence agencies that are run from the top down with too little regard for the long term and too much concern with proving to the public that they’re doing their jobs.

Director Anton Corbijn keeps the complicated story running smoothly—it’s a lot easier to follow than the recent remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And as good as Hoffman is, it’s not a star turn: he’s part of a strong ensemble. (So strong that minor roles of Bachmann’s co-workers are played by Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl, German actors working way below their stature.)

Intelligent and morally probing, with a minimum of pulse-racing action scenes, A Most Wanted Man is the kind of adult thriller that doesn’t usually get released until the fall. It would be a shame if it fails to find an audience in the swamp of summer blockbusters.

Opens Friday at the Eastern Hills and North Park Theaters.

Watch the trailer for A Most Wanted Man

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