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‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a most worthy sendoff for Philip Seymour Hoffman: Roeper

A German intelligence operator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works methodically sting lecturer he suspects dark secret life “A Most Wanted Man.”

A German intelligence operator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) works methodically to sting a lecturer he suspects of a dark secret life in “A Most Wanted Man.” | ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

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Gunther Bachmann Philip Seymour


Annabel Richter Rachel McAdams

Issa Karpov Grigoriy Dobrygin

Tommy Brue Willem Dafoe

Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell, based on a novel by John le Carre. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: August 26, 2014 6:17AM

The film is called “A Most Wanted Man,” and it is one of the best spy thrillers in recent years.

This is the last film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman the world will ever see. It’s the last new example of his world-class talent and his ability to inhabit a character with such memorable ease.

Yes, Hoffman will appear in a supporting role in the two-part “The Hunger Games: Mockinjay” movies, but as far as seeing him carry a film, “A Most Wanted Man” is it. At least we get a fitting vehicle.

Helmed with precision skill and pinpoint timing by the Dutch director Anton Corbijn and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, “A Most Wanted Man” is the latest in a long string of complex, intense, thrilling and, yes, sometimes confusing films adapted from works by the great John le Carre. From 1965’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” to 1984’s “The Little Drummer Girl” to 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” le Carre’s books have been turned into some of the finest espionage films of the last half-century.

So it is with “A Most Wanted Man,” a film very much of our times. Hoffman is nothing short of brilliant as Gunther Bachmann, a world-weary German intelligence operator. With his gut spilling out over his belt, his chain smoking and an ever-present glass of whiskey nearby, Gunther probably doesn’t look like he could run down a senior citizen or defeat a barmaid in hand-to-hand combat (though we do come to discover he can still pack a punch), yet he’s an invaluable weapon in the intelligence game because he’s seen it all before and he knows how to play both sides of the fence.

“A Most Wanted Man” is set in the vital port city of Hamburg, Germany, where the attacks of 9/11 were hatched by Mohammed Atta and his compatriots. Any number of spies, political operatives and persons of interest still frequent Hamburg, with everyone from Interpol to the CIA to various branches of German law enforcement keeping a watchful eye on the Islamic community.

After a few opening lines spoken in German, Hoffman switches to credible German-accented English for the remainder of the film. Gunther heads a small, in-the-shadows anti-terrorism unit that operates in a gray area. He barely tolerates Dieter (Rainer Bock), the chief of the Hamburg division of Germany’s intelligence service, nor does he have much respect for CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). As far as Gunther’s concerned, they’re getting in the way of his team as they shadow the half-Russian, half-Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has escaped from a Russian prison and is seeking to make a new life in Hamburg. Whether Karpov is pure victim or a criminal, or some combination thereof, is one of the many questions Gunther is seeking to answer.

The screenplay by Andrew Bovell is an exercise in weaving in multiple characters and complications without getting the audience lost in the weeds. We meet Rachel McAdams’ Annnabel, a passionate human-rights attorney who thinks she’s doing the right thing but might be unwittingly abetting a terrorist cell; Willem Dafoe’s Tommy Brue, a wealthy banker with some dubious clients, and Homayoun Ershadi’s Dr. Faisal Abdullah, a respected lecturer and philanthropist who has publicly denounced terrorism — which has hardly allayed Gunther’s suspicions about him.

Gunther plays each of them like a Hofner violin, maneuvering them into situations where they have little choice but to help him.

Dieter wants to arrest young Karpov immediately. Gunther argues for patience, saying Karpov can lead them to the much bigger fish, i.e., Dr. Abdullah. The CIA agent Sullivan buys Gunther 72 hours to set and execute his trap. In the midst of it all, Gunther wonders why they’re all doing what they’re doing — if it matters even in the least in the grand scheme of things. Sullivan coolly replies they’re doing it “to make the world a safer place.”

Gunther methodically goes about his business, confident he’s the smartest person in any room he’s in. He’s usually right. Whether his instincts are correct this time is something for the viewer to discover. Suffice to say “A Most Wanted Man” works as a crowd-pleaser and as a believable reflection of how these fictional events might well play out in the real world.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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