'Most Wanted': Film Review

MOST WANTED Still 7 - Saban Films Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Saban Films
An involving but not fully satisfying true-crime snafu.

Josh Hartnett plays a Canadian journalist in Daniel Roby's true story of a scandalous drug sting.

A grotesque case of cops being so eager to bust a drug dealer that they unwittingly create one, Daniel Roby's Most Wanted adapts a true story in which a young Canadian (played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon) wound up spending years in a Thai prison for a crime he was practically forced to commit. Josh Hartnett plays the real Canuck investigative journalist Victor Malarek, whose life has already inspired a couple of biopic-like productions, and who doggedly pursued the truth here; but the pic may draw more attention stateside as a very against-type outing for wholesome comic Jim Gaffigan, who plays the scuzzy informant who sets this upsetting story in motion.

Pilon's Daniel Léger (not the real man's name) is an addict who has been clean for six months, working in a forest far from those who might tempt him back to his old life. But his plans to start over in Vancouver go south mere hours after his return: The friend who'd promised to rent him a room instead strands him on a boat with Gaffigan's Picker, a volatile party guy who shoves dope and prostitutes in Danny's face, aiming to make the kid dependent on him.

Picker hires Danny to help on charter-fishing trips, feeding him tiny bags of heroin and tall tales about his exploits as a smuggler. In truth, Picker is a low-level informant for Sgt. Cooper (Stephen McHattie), a going-nowhere narcotics cop in desperate need of a newsworthy bust. When Picker tells Cooper he knows someone involved in major drug smuggling from Thailand, the cop agrees to pay him 80 grand if they can execute a successful sting.

Which is harder than it sounds, because the only thing Daniel ever did on his previous trips to Southeast Asia was buy drugs for his own consumption. He knows nothing about wholesaling. But with a few deft con-man moves, nicely played by Gaffigan, Picker manipulates him into amassing a debt, then points to a way out of it. Soon the reluctant, worried young man is being coerced into meetings with Sgt. Cooper, who pretends he's a dealer in search of a new supplier.

Meanwhile, the film is flash-forwarding to Toronto scenes in which up-and-coming reporter Malarek is hitting speed bumps in his career. Roby's script relies on some stale heroic-reporter tropes and stakes-raising devices (like the editor who tells him if his next story isn't front-page-worthy, he's fired); if these aren't enough, Malarek's wife (Silicon Valley's Amanda Crew) has just had a baby, making him extra-vulnerable to any enemies he might make.

Nevertheless, Malarek smells something fishy in government press releases about a Canadian who got busted with dope in Thailand, and, despite strong discouragement from officials, he hops a plane to dig up the truth.

Quick and pretty constant cutting between different threads of this story keep Most Wanted from feeling as long as it actually is, but it also keeps us from committing fully to any one story, all of which feel slightly underwritten. Pilon and Hartnett ostensibly have the central roles, and each gets his share of melodramatic twists to react to. But the film's unacknowledged dramatic center sits with Cooper. Roby would've been smart to invest more in McHattie's performance, as the presumably ordinary cop gets caught up in the momentum of an expensive sting he launched in good faith, albeit with insufficient research. By the time he understands he's working on busting a nobody who's basically innocent, it would be career suicide to call things off. That's a dilemma worth our attention, even if we all know how we're going to judge Cooper in the end.

Production companies: Caramel Films, Bataillon Films, Zone Film
Distributor: Saban Films (Available on demand)
Cast: Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Josh Hartnett, Jim Gaffigan, Stephen McHattie, Amanda Crew
Director-Screenwriter: Daniel Roby
Producers: Valérie d'Auteuil, Daniel Roby, André Rouleau
Director of photography: Ronald Plante
Production designer: David Pelletier
Costume designer: Veronique Marchessault
Editor: Yvann Thibaudeau
Composer: Jorane
Casting director: Francis Cantin

Rated R, 125 minutes