Some films, even if one knows nothing else about them, are quite clearly based on a true story. Every element of story structure screams it. This does not, in and of itself, make a work good or bad, it is simply such a prevalent element that it must be stated early on in any discussion.
Consequently, let me state quite emphatically that “Most Wanted,” the new film written and directed by Daniel Roby, is “inspired” by a true story. While I am obligated to make this last statement, you would know as much about 10 minutes into watching it. After all, there is no reason whatsoever to build the story in the way it’s built if you weren’t trying base it on some real world occurrence. It will also surprise absolutely no one who watches the film to see the name Victor Malarek as one of the people who collaborated on the film with Roby. Malarek is a journalist who is played by Josh Hartnett in the film and while Hartnett is great to watch, the role is overly large when compared to its relevance to the tale as it is told.
Let me take a step back.
“Most Wanted” is the story of a man named Daniel Léger (he’s referred to in the postscript as a “character” and consequently not the actual person to whom the real events happened), played by Antoine Olivier Pilon. A recovering drug addict, Léger is convinced by another man, Glen Picker (Jim Gaffigan), and undercover police, led by Frank Cooper (Stephen McHattie), to go to Thailand to buy drugs. Picker sets the whole thing up in order to get a payout from the cops and the cops, having invested a lot of resources into the operation, push Léger into doing the deal in ways that are outside the law. Bad things happen.
Rather than just giving us this tale of Léger, which would be interesting in and of itself, the movie insists on giving us a whole lot of Malarek and a whole lot of Cooper as well. We might not initially understand how their three lives are going to overlap, but because “Most Wanted” keeps going back and forth between them, we know that they will.
None of the three men are built into unique individuals. Léger is easily pigeonholed as the recovering addict just trying his life back in order who can’t seem to stop finding trouble. Cooper is the bad cop, so convinced that he’s doing the right thing that by the time he realizes he’s doing the wrong one, it’s too late. And Malarek… Malarek is the Woodward & Bernstein of the piece. He’s the overworked, underpaid, disrespected by one and all, reporter who sees it as his mission to save the world and will do so come hell or high water. He may have a new baby and his life may be threatened and his wife (Amanda Crew) may not believe in him, but—dammit all!—he’s going to fight the good fight and win.
Hartnett is great here as Malarek, it’s just that Malarek spends his time yelling at his editor and getting pressured from above while Léger is deep in the weeds as dirty cops and a drug dealer are trying to force him down a bad road. Malarek winds up with his family threatened—which is certainly no laughing matter—but “Most Wanted” never spends enough time on that angle to make it feel like anything more than another in a long line of ways that the reporter must suffer to bring justice to the world. It is nearly guffaw worthy to read a card at the end of the movie stating, “The man who inspired the Daniel Léger character declared that he owes his life to Malarek’s involvement in the his case. He never touched heroin again.”
As for the police side of things, McHattie tries to make Cooper engrossing, but there is simply not enough there with which to work. Cooper and his team are more caricatures of villainous, incompetent, police officers than true-to-life versions.
The movie dances back and forth between Léger and Malarek, with some Cooper thrown in for good measure, never sure whether it wants to be the tale of the Watergate burglars or the tale of Post reporters tracking down the truth. It winds up feeling obsessed with its need to get out all the various angles of its true story rather than offering up a full, single, narrative.
In its pursuit of this need, “Most Wanted” squanders the performances from Pilon and Hartnett. Both characters may make worthwhile leads, and both actors prove their ability to play them, but by dividing the tale, no one is given the opportunity they deserve. The movie winds up shouting from the rooftops that this is inspired by reality, that it is important due to this near non-fiction claim, and while there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the crimes Malarek uncovered, depicting the events in this fashion obfuscates the lessons.
photo credit: Saban Films