Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In Theaters: A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

(UK/US/Germany - 2014)

Directed by Anton Corbijn. Written by Andrew Bovell and Stephen Cornwell. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Debhi, Rainer Bock, Herbert Gronemeyer, Vicky Krieps, Martin Wuttke, Max Volkert Martens. (R, 122 mins)

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman had two films in the can and he was nearly finished with his scenes on the next two HUNGER GAMES installments when he died of a heroin overdose on February 2, 2014. To say that modern cinema has lost one of its greatest actors isn't an exaggeration: a look at Hoffman's credits over the last 15-20 years brings back memories of so many unforgettable characters: the obnoxious, "shaka-laka-doobie-do" craps player in HARD EIGHT; the awkward, closeted production assistant pining for Dirk Diggler in BOOGIE NIGHTS; the obscene phone caller in HAPPINESS; dispensing sage-like wisdom as Lester Bangs in ALMOST FAMOUS; the gas-huffing widower in LOVE LIZA; the gambling-addicted bank manager in OWNING MAHOWNY; his Oscar-winning turn as CAPOTE; the scheming son orchestrating a robbery gone horribly awry in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD; the theater director given an unlimited budget to create his life's work in SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK; the priest who may or may not be abusing altar boys in DOUBT; the L. Ron Hubbard figure in THE MASTER. Just 46 when he died, Hoffman already amassed a body of work that gave significant credibility to the notion that he was the best of his generation, but it's depressing to think of all the great performances he still had left in him.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)
Shot two years ago, A MOST WANTED MAN, based on the 2008 novel by the seemingly ageless John le Carre, grants Hoffman another memorable character into which he vanishes completely: Gunther Bachmann, a German counterterrorism agent based in Hamburg. Like most of the protagonists in le Carre's perpetually gray and dreary, Spy Who Came in From the Cold settings, Bachmann is weary, rumpled, jaded, and cynical. He has no apparent life outside of his job, he chain smokes, lives on black coffee, whiskey, and fast food, probably sleeps in his office most nights, and wears the same clothes several days in a row. He feels the Hamburg assignment is punishment for a job that went south on his watch in Beirut, resulting in the deaths of most of his team. Bachmann is the beaten-down-by-life doppelganger of Hoffman's bellicose Gust Avrakatos in CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR. But Hamburg is actually an important post, being the residence of 9/11 hijacker/ringleader Mohammed Atta prior to the terrorist attacks in 2001, and Bachmann believes he's on to something with respected philanthropist, Islam expert, and anti-terrorism lecturer Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).  Records of Abdullah's many charitable donations always show a discrepancy involving a mysterious shipping company based in Cyprus, through which Bachmann believes the doctor is funneling money to terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Russian/Chechen fugitive, has escaped captivity and made his way to Hamburg. Believed to have terrorist ties that may involve Abdullah, Bachmann and his team keep surveillance on both men. Karpov is led to left-wing, civil-rights activist lawyer (or, as Bachmann calls her, "a terrorist social worker") Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who agrees to oversee his collecting an inheritance from his late father that's being kept in a bank owned by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Having been tortured in Russian and Chechen prisons and renouncing all terrorist beliefs, Karpov wishes to take his inheritance and donate it to the worthy causes of the outwardly altruistic Abdullah. With the German government breathing down his neck for results and believing Karpov innocent, Bachmann instead wants to use Karpov to nail Abdullah, teaming with opportunistic CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) to set Karpov and Annabel up at a safe house while they put the complex plan in motion.

Like Tomas Alfredson's masterful TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), A MOST WANTED MAN is a melancholy slow-burner for grown-up audiences. There's a lot of espionage machinations and what little there is in the way of action doesn't play at all like a typical spy-movie crowd-pleaser, with Bachmann gasping and wheezing after being on the losing end of a foot chase. The film is directed by Anton Corbijn, whose last effort was the glacially-paced, Euro-styled George Clooney mood piece THE AMERICAN (2010), a very good film sold as a commercial shoot 'em up actioner when it fact it was a somber, morose Jean-Pierre Melville homage that should've played the art-house circuit (still one of the funniest things I've ever witnessed in a movie theater: an older woman at a matinee of THE AMERICAN standing up and shouting "Hang the director!" as the closing credits rolled). A MOST WANTED MAN isn't quite as austere as THE AMERICAN, and it's forcefully driven by one of Hoffman's greatest performances. Again disappearing into a role, Hoffman's German accent is flawless from the start and you immediately forget you're watching Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman was always an actor who committed regardless of how undignified he had to be, and his out-of-shape, overweight Bachmann, his belly hanging over his belt and his breathing labored with audible congestion between every drag on the cigarette constantly between his lips, is a vividly real characterization. Given his unexpected passing, most of the focus of A MOST WANTED MAN will be on him, but the rest of the cast does excellent work as well, particularly McAdams and Dafoe, both offering German accents just as convincing as Hoffman's. Scripted by Andrew Bovell, with an "additional writing" credit for le Carre's son and co-producer Stephen Cornwell, A MOST WANTED MAN is the kind of summer movie specifically engineered as counterprogramming for adult audiences, but at the same time, it's a bittersweet reminder that we've lost a gifted, one-of-a-kind actor whose absence will be felt for years to come.

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