PARK CITY - In the world of intelligence thrillers, the Cold War, much like smoking, is a hard habit to break. And both, as it turns out, feature prominently in Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man," the first big-screen adaptation of a John Le Carré novel since Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" in 2011, and a worthy spiritual successor to that tangled, tea-stained tale of world-weary espionage. The difference, however, is that we're long past the Cold War's big thaw in this particular story: post-9/11 paranoia is the order of the day, though Le Carré's typically dry, rueful tone and Corbijn's pewter-colored aesthetic combine to suggest the shift is immaterial: the more things change, the more they stay the same, and political distrust springs eternal.
The setting may be Hamburg -- a hub of terrorist research and surveillance since being revealed as the place where Mohammed Atta conceived and planned the 9/11 attacks -- but so dense is the film's fug of smoke, cynicism and heavy skies from the outset that you half-expect Gary Oldman's George Smiley to show up. In a sense, he does, though his accent has turned brittly German and he's taken the rather less trim form of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A slouching figure in unpressed suits, his sparse yellow hair an afterthought, Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the jaded chief of a terrorist investigation unit kept hidden by the German government, their mission to cultivate and protect informants in the city's Islamic community. Bachmann comes from the watch-and-wait school of investigation, and his slow-burn techniques frequently put him in conflict with Mohr (Rainer Bock) the head of a rival intelligence unit, who prefers to act aggressively upon suspicions.
When Chechen-Russian immigrant and proclaimerd torture victim Issa Karpov (the excellent Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin, here making his English-language debut) arrives in Hamburg seeking asylum, both men's interest is piqued: identified as a militant jihadist on the run, he may be seeking a fresh start or may be out to contact Islamist cells in the city.
Interfering with their finding out is a third interested party, impassioned human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who offers the mystery man shelter and arranges for him to claim a substantial family inheritance from high-end banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). All the while, CIA agent Sullivan (Robin Wright, sporting an angular black crop) observes the situation from a distance, playing Bachmann against Mohr until the truth emerges -- with the former given 72 hours to uncover the truth his way, until Mohr takes more combative action.
That is about the sparest synopsis I can offer of Le Carré's intricate cat's-cradle of sparring motives and mismatched theories, here elegantly filleted by Australian playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell -- an exciting match for the material, given that he negotiated similar thickets of personal intrigue in Ray Lawrence's brilliant 2001 drama "Lantana," albeit in an entirely domestic context. For all the surface complication, however, the mystery is a tasty secondary concern in what is first and foremost a character study: a shivery, unaffectionate one, granted, but one in which Bachmann's isolated, unarticulated personal damage is the biggest enigma of all.
That's just as well, since Hoffman's performance is a thing of wily, weathered beauty -- his peculiar accent less a feat of mimicry than of character-based interpretation. Few contemporary actors have quite such a lock on bleary-eyed intelligence, and he plays Bachmann's lone-wolf stature with just the right degree of ashy irony -- his mordantly flirtatious exchanges with Wright's semi-amused spy are a particular joy to observe. ("Men with good reputations aren't much use to me," she tells him, as if any such men exist in this particularly story world.) His is hardly the only performance of note in this carefully cast film -- McAdams is a hard, focused surprise, while the wonderful Nina Hoss locates wit and detail in every minute of all too little screen time as Bachmann's right-hand woman -- but it's the one most in step with its slowed, skewed rhythm.
Corbijn, meanwhile, has found richer genre material for his gray, gusty aesthetic than 2010's supremely well-styled but emotionally vacant thriller "The American" -- based, funnily enough, on a Le Carré-esque novel by Martin Booth, but lacking the frayed edges and pockets of human feeling that give this one a pulse beneath its impeccably dour facade. Visually, it's less exactingly designed than either "The American" or his stark 2007 debut "Control," but the Corbijn rock-photographic signature emerges here and there -- working with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, few other filmmakers could give the nondescript, graffiti-stamped streets of Hamburg such tangibly damp texture. And few other filmmakers would choose to end these solemn proceedings (particularly after a despairing, brilliantly timed gut-punch of an ending) with Tom Waits's raucous bar-stomper "Hoist That Rag" over the closing credits -- just the bleak release these shadowy neo-Cold War fighters deserve.