The 400-Word Review: A Most Wanted Man

By Sean Collier

July 28, 2014

Hoffman gets flashbacks about Kate Hudson in Almost Famous.

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The spy picture is a genre of atmosphere, performance and environment. In the hands of a gifted, subtle director and powerful, driven actors, a film about espionage and international intrigue can be, well, intriguing as anything; the suggestion of a globetrotting network of invisible handshakes, hidden secrets and unwavering danger is, after all, naturally dramatic.

The stories, not so much.

I’d be hard-pressed to summarize even the broad plot points of spy flicks I’ve enjoyed; I could probably come up with “America vs. Russia” or “Britain vs. Russia” or “Terrorists vs. Everybody,” but the movement of the story is often secondary to the emotional journey. And so it goes with A Most Wanted Man, the plot of which is presented here only as a point of reference.

Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is either a dangerous jihadist or downtrodden refugee. He turns up in Hamburg attempting to claim a multimillion-Euro inheritance from a bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe); unfortunately, there’s a giant anti-terrorist organization in Hamburg under the watch of Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and they’re onto him. Karpov enlists the help of a lawyer and social crusader named Annabel (Rachel McAdams), but the Americans show up in the guise of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), and Americans generally like making people disappear swiftly. Oddly enough, that’s not the actual conflict, which pits Bachmann’s desire to let Karpov lead his team to a higher-level asset against the western interest in showy justice.


Got all that? No? Doesn’t really matter. The story is conveyed clearly enough by the script, but director Anton Corbijn’s interests lie elsewhere. Faced with a similar task in 2010’s excellent The American, he went small-scale; here, he prefers the big picture.

What does matter is the oppressive scenery of back-alley Europe that frames the story and seeps into every set, even if the set in question is a featureless bunker. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme keeps shadow in every frame, creating the contradictory romance that defines the best spy fiction.

What matters more are a series of restrained, deft performances, Hoffman’s chief among them. A Most Wanted Man represents some the late actor’s final work, and scenes where he releases suppressed rage are among his best; a confrontation with a random baddie in a bar is enormously memorable. His talent has been endlessly rhapsodized since his untimely passing, but Hoffman’s performance here may be the best possible tribute.

My Rating: 8/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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