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Most Wanted Man, A

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // November 4, 2014
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 7, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Critiquing the final original project of a successful actor, especially one as well-regarded and prolific as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, presents its challenges: the urge might be there to elevate the entire film in response to his performance, or to simply give it a pass in order to relish the remaining fresh content of their career. While the remaining Hunger Games films will feature him in his recurring role for two more bouts in the arena, A Most Wanted Man ends up being his last substantial, outside-the-box appearance, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better showcase for his talent than the methodical atmosphere created by Anton Corbijn. Through a morally-ambiguous deconstruction of suspecting individuals of terrorist ties and activities in metropolitan Germany, Corbijn allows a stream of subtle and pertinent tension to surface amid sleuthing, dot-connecting, and surveillance, driven by a weathered intelligence director who's become entirely proficient at navigating the gray shadows of espionage.

Adapted from John Le Carre's novel by Edge of Darkness scribe Andrew Blovell, A Most Wanted Man slips into the cluttered maze of Hamburg, just as a covert intelligence group spots a suspicious face in CCTV footage. With confirmed ties to known terrorist activity, the half-Russian immigrant -- a victim of aggressive torture -- becomes the subject of Gunther Bachmann's small crew of investigators and plants, following him through the city as he seeks asylum and a means of collecting his family's extensive fortune. Bachmann struggles to cooperate with several domestic and international branches of government who've taken an active interest in his target, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), as well as the refugee's newly-recruited immigration lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). As Karpov inches closer to claiming his birthright, tension mounts over his intention with the funds, as well as whether Bachmann's sleuthing will give the suspect so much rope in baiting potential allies that it might end up being too late.

Those who've seen Anton Corbijn's The American should have an idea of how meticulous, low-impact tension drives the espionage in A Most Wanted Man, though he taps into more verve and momentum as this one maneuvers through the streets of Hamburg. The mystery tends to take hasty jumps through the investigation and the strained political relationships surrounding Gunther, though, relying on willfully vague plotting around Karpov that both expands the story's intrigue and keeps those watching at arm's length. Corbijn hopes to counterbalance the abstraction with hefty, absorbing gray-area themes involving money switching hands, the flawed science of suspicion and intel, and empathizing with those who easily appear capable of monumental charges. Labored plotting and conversations that string everything together prevent it from being entirely successful, rendering stale moments of chatty exposition and an ineffectual romantic angle involving the suspect, but the timely thematic weight that expands within each scene speaks louder.

The potency of A Most Wanted Man relies on capturing the authentic responses of those caught in Hamburg's terrorism web -- Gunther's task force, their targets, and the government branches wanting to both help and regulate their affairs -- and showcasing the impact of so many formidable components brushing against one another. At the center stands Gunther Bachmann, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a different form of game-maker in his orchestration of the real-world spy/surveillance tactics in gathering intel on Karpov. Hoffman's scruffy, weathered aura plays incredibly well into Bachmann's worn-down disposition after years of thankless work, thrusting a gravelly yet nuanced accent through his heavy-breathed dedication to fighting terrorism by any means necessary. He displays a great rapport with his comrades, allowing the character's subtle charms to emerge around his closest assistant, Erna Frey (Nina Hoss), and his effective intimidation to persuade local high-profile banker Tommy Brue (a capably European-acting Willem Dafoe) to cooperate with his cause. Robin Wright delivers a subdued spin on Claire Underwood as an American security diplomat, generating disparate energy against Bachmann's ardent agenda.

A Most Wanted Man settles into its rhythm quite similar to the way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another adaptation of one of John Le Carre's novels, does: a reserved flow of suspense moves between elegantly-photographed boardrooms and unglamorous points of scheming and surveillance in Hamburg, mostly free of bombastic chases or shootouts. Director Corbijn adds subtle devices that elevate the electricity in the atmosphere, such as the stressed echo of Bachmann's inhales and exhales while observing a mark, as well as sending Bachmann through mundane locations with visual interest -- angular office floors with pale lighting and bank offices with intricate wood grain walls -- that keep the eyes engaged. The plot itself, however, struggles to hold interest as a dramatic thriller, meandering whenever the focus falls on Issa Karpov's character and his evolving relationship with Annabel, as Rachel McAdams feels out of her depth as an illegal immigrant lawyer. At two hours, even with more opportunities for momentum, the pacing slumps.

The final rush of scenes in A Most Wanted Man rewards having patience in Corbijn's deliberate style, opening the door wide for Philip Seymour Hoffman's robustness to shine. Rarely will one find more intensity captured on the big-screen that hinged on the mere signing of a document , a collision of the themes and concerns introduced by Issa Karpov's arrival in Hamburg that funnels into a bleak resolution to the buzz he creates. More than that, the sequences push Hoffman's character into an explosive dramatic situation that proves to be both a challenging zenith for Gunther Bachmann's efforts and a brilliant exercise for the actor. A Most Wanted Man is all about moving pieces that continue to move despite the victories and failures that get individuals' hands dirty in the pursuit of safety, culminating into a potent, significant environment for Hoffman's indelible presence to be submerged in. While not as transformative as Capote or as persistently commanding as Dodd in The Master, the blend of gratification, fear, and disappointment surrounding Gunther Bachmann in the end is a strong cap-off to a phenomenal career.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

A Most Wanted Man might evade a lot of Hollywood conventions in its story, but its teal-and-orange handheld style frequently mirrors the gritty look of blockbuster crime-dramas. Lionsgate's Blu-ray tackles the sometime frustrating aesthetic in a 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer that hits hard on the elements that pop within Anton Corbijn's film. A slight gradation of yellow walls, some red stripes in Bachmann's tie and in neon lights, and the lushness of foliage stand out, while the natural paleness and warmth of skin tones are preserved alongside the steely palette. Contrast stays balanced, if a bit heavy at times. Sharp fine details emerge in the fabric of Gunther's suit, brick and glass-paneled walls, and the scraggly consistency of long facial hair, while crisp and undistorted lines appear in the clean office spaces. As expected, the most impressive elements come in those that jibe with the color timing: stainless steel deposit boxes, wood walls, and urban lights. A strong transfer.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a sly one. At first listen, it doesn't seem as if there's a lot of activity that travels back to the rear channels, as there shouldn't be given the largely confined nature of the sound design. Upon closer inspection, however, little details stand out from the back that bolster the atmosphere: the echo of boxing pads getting punched, trains grinding along the rails, and the chatter inside clubs and restaurants creates a fine, immersive experience. The robust score often overbears those elements as the primary source of surround activity, but not to a point where they become inaudible. Separation across the front channels can be fine, too, emerging in little things like ice rattling in a glass and the slightly-distorted sound of recorded surveillance. The most important element here is dialogue, of course, which the Blu-ray treatment captures with nondescript but serviceable clarity that relishes the various European accents of the actors. English and Spanish subtitles are available, as well as a Spanish 5.1 Dolby track.

Special Features:

The Making of A Most Wanted Man (16:09, 16x9 HD):
There's nothing terribly distinctive about this fifteen-minute featurette, clipping together congratulatory interviews and exposition with behind-the-scenes shots. Anton Corbijn is a restrained yet confident individual whose passion for the art comes through in a subtly satisfying way, and the other actors take moments to cover their interest in the projects and the other members of the cast. What makes this particular assembly featurette noteworthy is the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman discussing the complexity that drew him to the role, as well as his rapport with the director -- the freedom he was allotted in his process -- and the other actors. That makes this dime-a-dozen featurette, which systematically notches through the cast/crew in blipped segments, easily worth watching.

Lionsgate have also included a ten-minute retrospective with John Le Carre about his novel, entitled (Spymaster: John Le Carre in Hamburg (9:32, 16x9 HD), where he discusses the plot and Hamburg's unique traits. A Digital HD/Ultraviolet slip has also been included.

Final Thoughts:

There's a moment early in A Most Wanted Man where Philip Seymour Hoffman's anti-terrorist character, Gunther Bachmann, asks a street vendor "What's new?", to which the street vendor replies that his life "is the same as it was yesterday". Directly after, Hoffman very subtly breaks the fourth wall by glancing into the camera as he walks away, letting the fact that his efforts allow the vendor's life to remain the same day by day sink in. As a political thriller, Corbin's film suffers from some dubious jump-aheads in narrative and pacing issues, but it ultimately succeeds on the breathless weight of its conflicts -- about the boundaries of suspicion, the willingness to bend rules to ensure safety, and the thanklessness of the job -- propelling it forward. As a showcase of Hoffman's talent at the end of his career, it's a substantial role with a sturdy thematic backbone that deserves to be watched. Lionsgate's Blu-ray looks great and sounds fine, and comes with a decent fifteen-minute featurette that includes interview time with the man himself. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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