The film, set in the wintry German city of Hamburg, purposely keeps it low key, slowly reaching its clinical conclusion in just over two hours with barely an eyebrow raised. The film shoots for realism, achieving it ten-fold; this is, after all, a John Le Carre adaptation. Boorish sector administration and hushed conversations can only carry a film so far, however, and the results of this muted screenplay ensure a safely disappointing ride.
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is on-point as Gunther, a troubled anti-terrorist agent who runs a small group of dull spies comprised of actors who should have had cracking chemistry together; Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl in particular do not really stand out as co-stars. Gunther is obsessed with Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), an esteemed doctor who he believes is funding terrorism overseas in the guise of charity.
His work pursuing this man is interrupted when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a suspected Chechnya-Russian radical enters Hamburg illegally. From this point Issa receives help from humanitarian lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams) and reluctant banker Tommy (Willem Dafoe).
Gunther communicates with his government and colleagues, in particular an American representative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) to track down Issa, but when he realizes there may be a link to Abdullah he proceeds with upmost caution, deploying his spy network and forcefully recruiting those in his way. A web of events culminate in the reveal of Issa's troubled past and his true purpose for entering Hamburg.
The plot may sound complex and sophisticated, but each scene plays out slowly and carefully so the audience misses nothing and the straight-laced style ensures there is no real complexity in pacing. There are a lot of characters but they are practically kept separate from the other subplots and there is not much personality to work with minus Gunther's tortured past and how it impacts his job and attitude in the present.
The film moves from one location to the next slowly and purposefully and it is both unremarkable and unexciting. This is particularly true when comparing another Le Carre vehicle, the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy that plays like an ever-expanding maze of intrigue, conspiracy and betrayal.
More importantly there are bursts of action in Tinker, Tailor, something that is sadly absent from A Most Wanted Man. There is a terrible chase sequence that starts off brilliantly; even the soundtrack ramps up and for a minute Gunther chases suspects through some stunning locations, in particular a dark, synth-filled night club. Before long the scene fizzles and nothing happens. This happens a few times throughout the movie, an intentional act to keep things dull that is baffling.
Despite the low-key, the location is stunning. The cinematography captures most elements of Hamburg, a port city that is rough, cold and beautiful. The lovely original score accompanies these scenes well and Corbijn proves once again he is a master of location; from the English town of Cheshire in Control, to the stunning Italian countryside in The American, the contemporary Hamburg is both a cold expression of the plot and a blank urban space ready for manipulation.
The impressive use of the city space however does not sustain the two hour length and the unfortunate realization that the film is all cloak and no dagger is its biggest let-down. The moments where the film bares its teeth are too fleeting and the culmination of all events to the end-game are so boorish that the tense spy-game finale is rendered mute, despite Hoffman's faultless performance.