The hard-headed reporter who doesn’t play by the rules is a stock character of films that invariably do. So it proves, again, in “Most Wanted,” a fact-based Canadian procedural of police skulduggery and journalistic derring-do that does its own job with proficient integrity, but as much inventiveness as you’d guess from that all-purpose placeholder of a title. Writer-director Daniel Roby has fictionalized the grim story of Alain Olivier, a small-time drug dealer tricked in 1989 by Canuck police into traveling to Thailand to orchestrate a major heroin score, landing him several years in a local prison. Victor Malarek, the real-life journo who uncovered the agents’ corruption, retains his identity in Roby’s telling, though as played with furrowed brow and gruff virtue by Josh Hartnett, he’s a movie hero through and through.
What sparks of strangeness and intrigue “Most Wanted” has emerge principally from the presence of Antoine-Olivier Pilon — the electric star of Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” in 2014 — as Olivier, here renamed Daniel Léger for purposes of creative leeway. His gangly body language and penetrating, off-kilter stare suggest a real, bewildered inner rage, not defined simply by the tabloid-ready circumstances of his victimhood. You needn’t be familiar with the true story to anticipate his arc here, but Pilon makes for volatile watching all the same. When the script shifts to matters of newsroom infighting and shoe-leather reporting, Hartnett takes the lead with his usual likeable diligence, but it’s hard not to feel we’ve drifted from the film’s live wire.
It’s a good 45 minutes before Pilon’s and Hartnett’s halves of the film intersect, exposing a staggered non-linear timeline that, while deftly engineered, doesn’t yield quite the dramatic payoff you might expect. Before then, “Most Wanted” introduces its leads in leisurely fashion. Malarek is established as a star print and TV newsman whose earnest commitment to truth-seeking hasn’t made him many friends in high places, and a loving but inattentive husband to his wife Anna (Amanda Crew, thanklessly cast). He’s lightly admonished for missing the birth of their first child to chase a scoop; beyond that, Roby’s screenplay isn’t much concerned with Malarek’s home life either.
Léger is presented to us with more human creases and question marks. An itinerant manual laborer with a drug habit and very bad taste in companions, he has a chequered personal history that is revealed only in patches — the blank spaces turn out to be crucial, particularly when the police identify him as an ideal patsy for an entrapment operation. Falling in with brutish low-level criminal Picker (Jim Gaffigan, playing seamily and effectively against type) is a dead end that pretty much anybody but the dim, desperate Léger could see coming: Soon enough, he’s sent to Thailand to do a supposedly routine deal. Cue reversal, betrayal and a stint in the infamous Bang Kwang prison — portrayed here in suitably sobering fashion, though with slightly less baroque hellishness than in 2017’s “A Prayer Before Dawn,” another true-life tale of a hapless westerner drawn into its violent confines.
As Malarek pursues the truth of what exactly went down — to the grave consternation of his editor (J.C. Mackenzie), who’d rather he just left the whole thing alone — viewers might arrive at it slightly ahead of him. At over two hours, “Most Wanted” could stand to pick up the pace of its own investigation: Malarek’s office squabbles and marital strains, in particular, are diversions that consume considerable screen time without accumulating much emotional weight. Whenever it’s on Thai soil, the film moves with tightened urgency and vigor: Ronald Plante’s camerawork, crisp and handsome throughout, gains in humid restlessness as it travels from the serene, misted vistas of British Columbia.
Along with Pilon’s striking performance, the film’s sturdy, subdued craftsmanship keeps it from movie-of-the-week territory, even as Roby’s script ticks overly familiar boxes. Eloi Painchaud’s score contributes subtle menace, while Yvann Thibaudeau’s editing zips and darts and cross-cuts in ways that enliven passages of procedural cliché. Still, it’s hard not to feel that “Most Wanted” has hedged its bets between the perspectives of two characters, when we’d rather see Olivier/Léger’s story through his own naive eyes. What’s that they say about journalists becoming the story?