The Saban Films-distributed Most Wanted (in theaters and available on demand starting July 24) from writer/director Daniel Roby, sees Josh Hartnett doing his best Woodward and Bernstein in the role of Canadian journalist, Victor Malarek.

“Inspired by the gripping true story, an investigative journalist (Josh Hartnett) unravels a twisted case of entrapment wherein a guy from the wrong side of the tracks, Daniel (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is forced into a dangerous drug deal against his will and is sentenced to 100 years in a Thai prison. As Daniel endures torture and abuse, the journalist must track down the shady undercover cops benefiting off the conspiracy, while also fighting for Daniel’s freedom.”

Released in Canada under the title of Target Number One, and filmed under the title Gut Instinct, Roby’s film is presented as two concurrent tales — one taking place in the recent past, and the other in the present — until the stories of Daniel Leger and Malarek intersect. Leger is a fictional version of Alain Olivier, a small-time criminal and heroin addict whose tale the actual Malarek reported on and who told his own tale in Good Luck, Frenchy, published earlier this year.

Hartnett might be the big name on the poster — along with Pontypool‘s Stephen McHattie and comedian Jim Gaffigan, the latter blending his comedic talents with real menace — but it’s Antoine-Olivier Pilon (as Daniel Leger) who owns Most Wanted. His portrayal of a man trying to make good and get clean, but is constantly hamstrung by those around him, is heartbreakingly excellent. As Leger, Pilon is an open book, upon whose face you can see the result of every broken promise and reluctant acquiescence. While many of the other actors in the film are playing a little broadly, Pilon is only too real in his portrayal of a man of whom so many take advantage in their quest for greater accolades.

Because of this, the scenes in which Pilon is on his own, such as the opening which introduces us to him, and the later scenes within the Thai prison. To a certain extent, the interactions between him and his love interest Mary (Rose-Marie Perreault), work most effectively. In these moments, there is minimal dialogue, or it’s rendered in Thai, and we’re forced to rely on what we can glean from Pilon’s expressions and body language.

Hartnett is competent in the role of the boundary-pushing Malarek, and despite the amount of screen time given to the character and his family life, it seems utterly perfunctory. The actor does a nice little Canadian accent — even if it sounds more like a yooper moved to the West Coast when they were young — but Malarek is the standard cinematic investigative journo, full of bluster and idealistic hubris and prone to making declarative statements regarding his motives and intent.

As a contrast with Leger it works well, and when placed into a triptych with the motives of the RCMP, it becomes effective in demonstrating how very different all three aspects of this story are. One of the things I loved about Most Wanted is a sequence where Roby cross-cuts between Leger’s drug bust, Malarek attempting to file his story, and an attack on the journalist’s home where resides his wife and newborn daughter. It’s ridiculously effective in how it builds tension, especially as the sheer sense of dread which imbues Most Wanted‘s back-half springs almost entirely from that couple of minutes of screen time.

While the film certainly does drag at times, with a lot more attention given to scenes of RCMP officer Cooper’s sitting in a chair looking resigned than necessary, Most Wanted moves along at a fair clip, and any moments that bog down the plot are usually immediately redeemed by ones in which Pilon’s performance reminds you of just what this movie is really about. This was an unexpected charmer for me. I expect it will be for a lot of other folks as well.