With all the talk about the film A Most Wanted Man being Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s last starring role, flying just below the radar is a scene in the film that seems almost a direct lift from The French Connection which came out in 1971.
In the scene, human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) is on the run with a man who is the titular most wanted man, the half Chechen/half Russian Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). Richter wants to stash Karpov in a safe-house, actually an apartment under renovation. They are being followed by an operative who works for Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
We watch as they head up the steps of an overhead U-Bahn station in Hamburg, Germany. A train arrives and they board the train as does Bachmann’s guy in the next car. Suddenly Richter and Karpov quickly exit the train and just as quickly they reboard the train. Bachmann’s guy was able to get off the train as well – only he wasn’t quick enough to get back on. So, as the train pulls out of the station, he heads back down the station steps for the street.
While he’s doing that he calls Bachmann who is in a car. What’s the next station? Bachmann asks. And we watch as Bachmann drives his car on the streets, as the train makes for the next station.
Now I know that Gene Hackman did the same thing in The French Connection as he played the on and off the train game with the guy he was chasing who was played by Fernando Rey. And when Ray got on the train, Hackman had to chase the train in his car.
Ultimately, Bachmann made a correct guess, as the next station was on the Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg. We watch as Richter and Karpov emerge from the train station. Bachmann tries to cut them off with his car. But Richter sees him and they flee. A foot chase ensues.
Lest you get the wrong idea, what I’m really saying that while this scene may have been a tribute to William Friedkin‘s The French Connection – all these two films have in common is their brutal realism. Director Anton Corbijn (pronounced Cor-bine) tells us as much as he’s been quoted as saying that this isn’t a Bourne spy film at all.
Guns aren’t shot, no one fights in deadly hand-to-hand combat, and if anything, this is a decidedly low tech kind of film. Yes, there’s surveillance equipment; but no one in New York, or Langley, is able to pull up CCTV feeds from anywhere in the world.
Hoffman’s Bachmann is much more of a Columbo type of guy rather than a flashy Bond or a Bourne. Bachmann is a schlubby, out of shape guy, who smokes and drinks heavily and it shows. He’s never heard of a pressed shirt, or a unrumpled suit. He drives a ratty car, apparently has no life other than his work.
In a neat scene, Bachmann and Willem DaFoe‘s banker character, Brue, are watching Richter. Bachmann tells Brue to forget about her. She’s out of our league. You see, Bachmann, a career spy, has everything riding on this situation and he hasn’t the time to become distracted, and he’s a man who knows his limitations.
He wants to use Karpov, and the money, as the small minnow, to go after a big barracuda (a well-known financier who does fund-raising for Islamic charities) and hopefully that will lead to a few of big sharks (Al Quaeda). Bachmann calls it the big picture, the long game.
He says, If you take Karpov now, what have you got? Nothing except a cold trail.
That’s our guy Bachmann. The problem for Bachmann, is that he’s kind of a barracuda himself. Which means there are forces in play that he can’t see or feel. Like his own bosses. Like the American CIA.
Speaking of which … To make the world a safer place….
This was first said by Robin Wright who played an American embassy official, a euphemism for a CIA operative, called Martha Sullivan. We meet her in Hamburg as she meets Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann He’s head of a small and select German anti-terrorist group. His outfit is so small that it is described as ‘known by very few, and liked by even fewer’. But immediately we know, that Sullivan is in town for Karpov.
She’s doesn’t quite say it directly, but when she and Bachmann met, we got this bit of key dialogue;
Bachmann: Hamburg is a long way from the embassy in Berlin. What brings you up here?
Sullivan: I’m here as an observer.
Bachmann: I’ve been observed by the Americans before. It usually doesn’t work out all that well.
What Bachmann and his crew do is recruit Muslims to become conduits of intel back to Bachman’s group. This has been a major way that counter terrorism has operated, particularly in Hamburg, as we were told at the outset, that one of the operatives of the 9-11 attacks began the operation in Hamburg.
You all know the name John le Carre from his masterful spy novels, and this film, A Most Wanted man, is another of his books that have been made into a movie. We have to go all the way back to 1965 for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was published in 1963 and made into a film in 1965 to see when le Carre and the movies hooked up. That’s nearly 50 years ago.
Which is also a little bit longer than how long Phillip Seymour Hoffman lived. Mr. Hoffman who died earlier this year, in February, was only 46 at the time of his death. But this is a dream role for him. Talk about perfect casting. Hoffman is Bachmann right down from the top of his head to his scuffed shoes. His accent as an English-speaking German seems spot on to me, as do all of his characteristics.
Bachmann is in Hamburg because he ran an op in Beirut that went south, and his whole network was taken out. So’s he’s been sent to a key location, Hamburg, that was important, but surely a step backwards on Bachmann’s CV. One might call it a transfer, others might call it a downgrade or a punishment. But Bachmann is nothing if not dedicated. So he does his job.
I think this is a thinking man’s spy film. Long on planning and short on action. There’s tension if you will, but it comes not from a life-or-death cat and mouse game. Instead we watch a guy signing cash transfer authorization slips. That’s about as tense as we get.
There’s a beautiful woman (McAdams) but she mostly wears jeans and rides a bicycle. When Bachmann needs to pull her in, the tactic used is as low tech as it gets, the grab and bag snatch right off the street into a waiting van. Check out the trailer:
See the film if you want to use your brains, are willing to watch a slow opening, and can watch a film without guns, fast cars, explosions, and action. This film is not shot in Paris, Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Istanbul, or any other exotic locations. Rather we are in Hamburg, Germany, and it is a dark, cold, and brooding kind of place.
A perfect match for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role. I’ll rate it at four point zero, and recommend it.