It's surprising that Philip Seymour Hoffman waited so long to play the hero of a John le Carré novel. The author's protagonists are often the kind of men that Hoffman portrayed so well in movies like "The Savages," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Capote" -- world-weary but not yet resigned, bedraggled but burning inside, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge their doom.
"A Most Wanted Man," adapted from le Carré's 2008 novel, marks the last film Hoffman completed before his death in February. He plays Günther Bachmann, a spy in Hamburg. That city is still ruing its role as home base for the 9/11 terrorists, while Bachmann is still stinging from a debacle in Beirut. When a bearded Mulsim named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) slinks illegally into Hamburg, alarms go off from Berlin to Washington, and everyone -- Bachmann included -- sees a chance to make up for past failures.
Among this movie's stellar international cast (Daniel Brühl, of "Rush," settles for a small role), Hoffman is a standout as the Scotch-soaked but savvy Bachmann. You can see his intelligence in every scene, whether playing coy with CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), bullying the posh banker Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe) or pressing the soft spots of the human-rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), all in an effort to get his man. Speaking in delicate, German-tinged English and throwing his weight around (he uses his belly like an index finger when issuing commands), Hoffman is a pleasure to watch.
"A Most Wanted Man" is classic le Carré, which is a problem. Written by Andrew Bovell and coolly directed by Anton Corbijn ("Control"), the movie feels like a superficial update of le Carré's entire Cold War oeuvre. Russians are replaced by modern-day terrorists, but the story offers no insight into a new enemy. The cat-and-mouse games, while entertaining, feel familiar. What elevates the movie is Hoffman's performance as a man pouring his soul into the only work he knows.
PLOT In Hamburg, the arrival of a Muslim immigrant triggers an anti-terrorist operation.
RATING R (language adult themes)
CAST Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright
BOTTOM LINE In his last completed film, Hoffman delivers one of his signature simmering performances. Everything else, however, feels lukewarm.