For more than 50 years, John le Carré has been churning out best-sellers set in the dingy back alleys of espionage. His thankless, workaday spies couldn’t be further from the babes-and-baccarat glamour of James Bond. But while le Carré’s cat-and-mouse page-turners are tough to put down, the movies made from them have been a mixed bag. Aside from 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and 1979’s BBC miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, few have been great. The latest, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, is a bit too subdued to change that track record. But it also crackles with a jigsaw-puzzle intelligence and features a superbly subtle lead performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who single-handedly gooses the post-9/11 procedural through some of its slower patches.
Hoffman, in his last starring role (the Hunger Games sequels are still on tap), plays Gunther Bachmann, a chainsmoking, old-school German counterterrorism agent with a thick-as-spaetzle accent and a world-weary air of defeat. He’s tracking a Chechen/Russian refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who mysteriously pops up among Hamburg’s Muslim community. What are the man’s intentions? Answering that question leads Gunther into uneasy alliances with a menagerie of murky players (Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright). Because this is le Carré, we know that plenty of double and triple crosses await. It’s just too bad they aren’t driven by a quicker pulse. B