“Ooooh, Americans,” growls the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the scheming German intelligence agent Gunter Bachmann in “A Most Wanted Man,” Anton Corbijn’s measured adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 novel. It’s another great performance, but dinged by the tragic context that it’s his last.
Hanging up the phone after a terse exchange with one of his demanding U.S. colleagues, Bachmann twirls his fingers and unleashes the shifty smile that strikes a nimble balance between sullen drama and physical comedy. There’s a visceral thrill embedded in this penultimate onscreen role, which precedes his appearances later this year and the next one in the closing installments of the “Hunger Games” franchise.
The story, which finds Bachmann battling to crack down on a terrorist agency in Hamburg, provides Hoffman with plenty of rich moments that rise above the particulars of its dense plot. It’s a triumphant send-off to a career defined by brilliant ambiguity: He’s a conflicted antihero worth rooting for.
Bachmann is a hard-drinking loner on a personal mission, and often comes across as a devious carnivore stalking its prey. However, his motives stem from a more sympathetic place. When a young Chechen-Russian Muslim (Gororiy Dobygin) shows up after surviving prison torture in his native country, Bachmann gravitates towards the mysterious figure — not so much to accuse him of terrorist affiliations, but to use that assumption for more constructive purposes, by turning the young religious man into bait.
Corbijn, who has complemented his photography career with two other patient and visually advanced dramas, last smuggled this slow-burn approach to suspense with “The American.” But whereas that movie coaxed George Clooney away from his suave demeanor to play a frumpy killer consumed by inner turmoil, “A Most Wanted Man” allows Hoffman to go out with not only one of his best performances, but one that epitomizes his strengths.
It’s often a bad sign when American actors attempt foreign accents when their imitations are automatically at odds with familiar faces (think Leonard DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond”). But Hoffman settles naturally into the part just as Corbijn’s dreary atmosphere accentuates it. If the movie falls short of its potential, the pratfalls stem mostly from weaknesses found in all le Carré adaptations, from “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” all the way through “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” While several offer wonderfully sophisticated tales of espionage gone awry, they also showcase a curious tension between character development and plot. Carré’s narrative style is dense with details that have nothing to do with its best moments. Hoffman, whose greatest onscreen bits transcend the particulars of each scene, embodies this recurring conflict.
Still, Corbijn delivers plenty of layered sequences designed to play against our sympathies. While the clandestine Muslim finds aid from human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and a reluctant banker (Willem Dafoe), Bachmann is always one short step behind them, and eventually catches up. His excitement is infectious; his endgame less so. Not unlike Jessica Chastain’s steely-eyed CIA operative in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Hoffman enlivens the plight of an operative consumed by the high stakes work to the point of delirium.
And so the central allure of “A Most Wanted Man” rests with the actor’s face. In one key scene, interrogating a potential accomplice, we see him gazing at the back of his captive’s head while plumes of smoke from his cigarette drift by. He speaks a few crucial words that seal his intentions, but the full weight of his scheme plays out in a textured gaze so detailed that could have remained there a minute longer. Elsewhere, he dashes out of a nightclub at the tail-end of a desperate chase, emerging in an alleyway practically shaking with panic. Hoffman makes the character’s investment so clear that it works in congress with the plot to build toward the devastating outburst of the finale, which is about the best recap of Hoffman’s thespian skills you could ask for.
Hoffman is such a domineering presence that the rest of the cast struggles to keep up. Nina Hoss, one of the few actual German stars in the cast, does a fine job as Bachmann’s serene and calculated co-worker, but junior agent Daniel Bruhl feels sadly underutilized, while both Dafoe and McAdams are too mannered for parts that find them acting against their best interests. Dobrygin, as the Muslim target, suffers from bland material that relegates his character to a prop in Bachmann’s scheme. Robin Wright surfaces in a handful of scenes as a cunning American agent, but she’s mainly a symbol of the menacing forces that Bachmann must dance around to keep his own focused strategies in play.
Above all, there’s Hoffman. Through passing references to an earlier incident that overshadows his career, and glances of him hitting the bottle, “A Most Wanted Man” gradually fleshes out the character’s background. There are hints of his repressed sexuality and heavy loneliness, but much remains up for interpretation. Hoffman embraces the opportunity with the same relish he brought to cryptic schemers in “The Master” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” among many other brilliant performances.
Though le Carré’s novel carries a modern hook by exploring the tattered intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, Hoffman imbues his character with an elegant quality that goes beyond topicality to suggest the timeless empathy within us all. That’s the essential quality that made his career such an outstanding run, and more than anything else, why he’ll always be missed.
Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate release “A Most Wanted Man” in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.