We don't really get a lot of straight-up action pictures anymore. At least, not the hardcore kind that was such a staple of the country's moviegoing diet in the 80's and 90's. Yes, there's a lot of on-screen action to be found, but it's often in superhero pictures, or pirate movies, or buddy comedies. Even the movies with more old-school influences are now done in a tamer PG-13 style (i.e. Live Free or Die Hard). There's definitely been a dearth of the guns-blazin', blood-spurtin', car-smashin', explosion-boomin' stuff of yesteryear. In that sense, Wanted feels like a breath of fresh air in the current watered-down action movie climate. Although it has a very contemporary visual style, the film is a throwback to the art of the hard-R action extravaganza.
James McAvoy plays Wesley Gibson, an office drone who hates his egomaniacal boss, his unfaithful girlfriend, and his duplicitous buddy who's secretly sleeping with said girlfriend. His staid existence is thrown into turmoil when he's approached by Fox (Angelina Jolie), a sultry assassin who informs Wesley that someone is out to kill him and she is there to save him. Fox, it turns out, is part of an elite group of assassins known as the Fraternity. Their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman), informs Wesley that his late father was a member, and that he, too, is genetically likely to have the same kinds of abilities shared by the others. This means that he can focus his energies to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks, such as shooting a gun so that the bullet curves to hit a target. Members of the Fraternity also know how to defy gravity as they jump through the air or drive cars.
Suddenly liberated from his cubicle, Wesley agrees to join the group. He's immediately put into the ultra-intense training program, where he morphs from a nebbish into a kind of pissed-off freedom fighter. Wesley does, indeed, have the gift, and Sloan assigns him to several targets, most notably Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), a former Fraternity member who went rogue, killing Wesley's father in the process. Together with Fox, he makes some strides in accomplishing the mission, but then Wesley begins to question where the assassination orders come from. Sloan shows him (I won't spoil it here), but there's something less-than-satisfying to him about the answer. Eventually, he figures out the right questions to ask and learns all about his father, as well as the mysterious group they have both been affiliated with.
I don't usually like to say that a movie is a hybrid of other movies, but if I were going to do that, I'd say that Wanted is a cross between The Matrix and Fight Club: The Matrix for the kind of non-stop, larger-than-life, physics-defying action it possesses, and Fight Club for the anti-establishment story about an emotionally pent-up guy who finds personal liberation in illicit activity. The film itself is actually based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. I now want to read that book.
Anytime someone tries to do this kind of thing, it's a risk. It either comes off as cool and audiences dig it, or it comes off as silly and they reject it. In the case of Wanted, the sheer outrageousness of the tone is the main selling point. Like last year's Shoot 'Em Up, this is a picture in which everything is cheerfully exaggerated, from the sheer vixen-ness of the appropriately named Fox, to the stunts and fight choreography, to the dark humor. It is the sort of movie where two men shoot at each other and their bullets collide in mid-air; where a sports car can flip through the air, land on top of a bus, and then drive off; where a guy jumps out a plate glass window and you can see the shards sticking to his body as he does. There's even a moment when one guy gets smacked in the face with a computer keyboard and some of the keys fly toward the camera, spelling out a profane message as they whiz by. Does this sound as fun to you as it does to me?
The director is Timur Bekmambetov, whose horror films Night Watch and Day Watch broke box office records in his native Russia and have earned a cult audience here. Bekmambetov is a master stylist who seems to invent something new in every scene: a different camera angle, a different editing scheme, a clever visual effect. He also provides a relentless pace that allows all the disparate elements to swirl into motion. The level of energy contained in Wanted is so high that you can't help but surrender to it. Periodically you see a film that is so jacked up on adrenaline that the audience gets a palpable contact high. Fight Club and The Matrix are good examples, as were 300 and Transformers. Wanted fits squarely into this category.
You'll definitely get juiced watching this thing, like you've just mainlined a case of Red Bull into your blood stream, but some credit must go to the actors. Here you have two Oscar winners - Freeman and Jolie - as well as an esteemed actor just starting to hit his stride (McAvoy). They give all the crazy action and relentless violence a much-needed grounding. For example, Wesley's transformation from milquetoast to badass is more enthralling because McAvoy plays both sides so perfectly. Sloan is menacing because Freeman brings his trademark gravitas to the role. And has there ever been a role more custom-made for Angelina Jolie than that of an unspeakably sexy, heavily-tattooed assassin with a bad attitude?
There's no real substance to Wanted other than its smart-alec suggestion that we'd all be a lot happier in life if we all started laying the smackdown on anyone who ever tried to do us wrong. And who knows - maybe there's a weird form of value in that concept. All I know for sure is that Wanted is unrepentantly violent and nihilistic. It's also a hell of a lot of fun.
( 1/2 out of four)
Wanted is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Wanted
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