‘A Most Wanted Man’ Is a Most-Needed Kind of Movie

After a summer spent watching big lizards, talking monkeys, human spiders, and a middle-aged Tom Cruise risking joint pain to save the world, it was almost like I had stumbled into a lost world when I found myself watching A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel.

Here’s a movie without any special effects, no exploding buildings, no plot holes through which you could run a freeway … and no guns.

No guns!

I don’t know how you feel about gun control in real life, but I’m all for it in the movies. Back in cinematic days of yore, every now and again the hero would pull out a pistol, maybe shoot it or maybe just threaten someone, and that was it. But movies today have become weapons porn, with endless shots of bigger, longer, more lethal guns ejaculating over and over again.

Whatever else it is, it’s boring on screen—boring and lazy. You don’t possess the talent to create genuine conflict? Just add a gun to the scene. Can’t figure out how to write a legitimately threatening villain? Just give him a gun. Is your movie an aimless clutter of clichés, cardboard characters, and narrative cul-de-sacs? Hand everyone in it a gun and stretch it out another 40 minutes.

So here comes the arsenal-free A Most Wanted Man—an unassuming film which barely raises its voice above a whisper, yet manages to be one of the most gripping movies produced in a long time.

A Nest of Intrigue

The film is set in present-day Hamburg and concerns the doings of small quasi-independent unit in the German intelligence network. Hamburg, apparently, has become a hotbed of terrorist activities. The intelligence unit, led by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is charged with rooting out terror cells and, especially, following the money trail.

The German police aren’t at all happy with Bachmann and his shadowy group, while the CIA (personified by Robin Wright at her chilly House of Cards best) has its own ax to grind.

These three outfits of “frenemies” are forced to work together when a young Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), shows up in Hamburg requesting political asylum.

Is Issa who he says he is, a man beaten and abused, who’s now trying to start a new, righteous life? Or is he a member of a terrorist network who’s come to Hamburg to further some nefarious plot?

Bachmann’s trying to find the answers while working to keep the police and the CIA from swooping in and carting Issa off to some black prison site.

Rachel McAdams gets involved as a German human rights lawyer trying to obtain asylum for Issa and also help him collect his father’s inheritance: 10 million Euros in a secret account watched over by a German banker played by Willem Dafoe.

That’s a lot of plot and, to tell the truth, I’m not sure that I picked up all the nuance and detail. But that’s a good thing. At a time when so many movies are nearly devoid of nuance and attention to detail, A Most Wanted Man is remarkable for its depth of layering. The film is as intricate as the underworld it portrays: one where nobody’s exactly who you think they are and what, precisely, is happening is never all that clear. You need to follow the action closely, which means you end up taking the same journey as the characters. A Most Wanted Man is arresting and compelling because you become utterly immersed in its world, not because someone blows up a monster’s head in slow motion.

Skilled Hands at Work Everywhere

Director Anton Corbjin (whose past credits include mostly music videos and documentaries) allows the story to unwind slowly, parceling out plot points and set pieces at a deliberate pace. I could do without the bleached-out color timing he’s chosen—this film looks like a Xerox copy of a print that was left in a hot attic for several years—but the surety which with he controls the thematic and dramatic elements of this top-notch screenplay adaptation by Andrew Bovell is highly rewarding.

Plaudits are also due to Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography and the design team of Sebastian Krawinkel, Sabine Engelberg, Yesim Zolan, and Nicole Fishnaller. While the depleted, depressed look of the film’s setting and costumes probably won’t endear A Most Wanted Man to the Hamburg Tourist Board, it’s exactly right for this tale of ex-Cold War warriors finding themselves in the middle of a new terror.

Though the movie most certainly stands on its own merits, A Most Wanted Man achieves cinematic landmark status as being the last film Hoffman completed before his death earlier this year. The most amazing thing about his acting here is how “un-actor-y” it is. There’s not a moment when he indulges in showy, self-conscious playing. From the outset he inhabits the character of Bachmann, a low-key government insider/outsider more comfortable burrowing underneath than flashing up front. It’s only when Bachmann needs to take control that Hoffmann gives us a glimpse of the passion fueling the man’s mission.

Other members of the international cast deliver strong performances as well. Hoffman’s fellow Hollywood regulars (McAdams, Wright, and Dafoe) acquit themselves nicely. There are notable turns by the young Russian actor Dobrygin as Issa, and by the German actress Nina Hoss playing Bachmann’s cohort spy.

A Most Wanted Man is an intelligent, moody piece requiring concentration to enjoy everything hidden under its surface. When deciding what movie to see, it’s customary to wonder if the movie is worth your time. With A Most Wanted Man, you need to be sure you’re worthy of it.

And, did I mention? No guns.

Ted Hoover is a writer and critic based in Pittsburgh.