Friday, June 27, 2008

"Wanted" -- * * *

At least once every few months, an action movie bursts into theaters with both guns blazing and either captures the imagination of the violence-loving masses or crumbles under the weight of its own ambitions (or lack thereof). Cheerfully amoral and blissfully dumb, Timur Bekmambetov's "Wanted" thankfully falls into the former category, and armed with a sense of humor and a Hefty bag-full of visual tricks, it sends you out of the theater at least twice as full of adrenaline as you were when you entered. It's basically "The Matrix" if the Wachowskis lost interest in philosophy and weren't quite so concerned with making sense. While fans of the source material and/or logic may not be able to let themselves surrender to the high-energy proceedings, its propulsive, unrelenting nature will likely suck in the most base-influenced and crass among us, and leave the rest either chuckling or nodding in its wake.

All the action-filled shenanigans revolve around Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), the sort of pathetic lout who Googles his name at work and gets no results. His boss (Lorna Scott) gives him shit, his girlfriend (Kristen Hager) is cheating on him, he downs anxiety-suppressants like candy, his ATM calls him "asshole" when he tries to make a withdrawal, and he generally all-around hates his life. When at the drugstore to pick up some more medication, a voluptuous assassin named Fox (Angelina Jolie) sidles up beside him and informs him that his father (David O'Hara), who Wesley thought long-dead, was in fact, killed only yesterday. Turns out he was a member of a secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, and now the dude (Thomas Kretschmann) who snuffed out pop wants to kill Wesley too. After an extended chase, Fox takes Wesley to the Fraternity's headquarters -- also a textile factory -- and meets their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Wesley is promptly shown his true destiny, to join the league of assassins and wipe out those who need wiping out. Suddenly, Wesley is important, and his once-futile existence is given some credence; cue the echoes of "Matrix's" 'chosen one' arc. Sort-of a "Kung Fu Panda" for the over-18 set, the movie is largely made up of Wesley's training as he learns how to best unleash that (as Sloan says) "caged lion locked inside," get schooled in gun-and-knife-wielding (including "curving" bullets), and get revenge for his slain father.

Bekmambetov proves here that he can assuredly handle a big-budget Hollywood film, while infusing it with the visual flair that was the only good thing about "Night Watch." The closest comparison tone-wise would probably be "Shoot 'Em Up," but I recently rewatched that film, and while I still recommend it, it's more of a patchwork of goofy, fun set-pieces than an actual movie; "Wanted" delivers a more satisfying, slickly-packaged whole, and that's primarily due to the Russian helmer's work. I liked little touches, like the symbolic smashing of Wesley's boss's red stapler, but the true masterstroke is a shot of Wesley smacking the gentleman screwing his girlfriend across the face with his office keyboard, with the keys flying toward the camera spelling out 'FUCK YOU,' with the dude's upside down tooth making up the second 'U.' It's visual ingenuity like that that makes this a lot more fun to watch than other films featuring some of this one's more familiar elements. The movie also fucks with its chronology a lot in inventive ways; a scene will abruptly end prematurely and then we'll find out how they actually ended up later (e.g.: Wesley gets stabbed in the hand, and then we cut to him in a bathtub encased in wax). Though it may frustrate some, it's not just a stupid device; it enhances our understanding of why the scenes end up the way they do.

With its non-stop absurdity and defiance of anything grounding it in reality, "Wanted" might as well be a comedy, and that's not a criticism; its dumbness isn't something you have to overlook, it's a key component to the fun. Bekmambetov knows every step of the way how silly all this is, and refuses to either play it 100% straight or let jokiness undermine the events of the movie. Instead, he has fun with the defiance of logic, always leaving the film's tongue firmly planted in its cheek (my first chuckle was in the first second, as the setting-establishing bottom crawl reads "1,000 Years Ago"), and gets us to go along with it by never over-explaining things to us. The logic behind, say, the curving of the bullets, is never really explained -- we just have to accept that this movie takes place where bullets can curve if you whip your gun around like a boomerang while you shoot it. In addition, characters jump through windows of skyscrapers, assassination targets are randomly determined by code written in fibers on a giant weaving system called the Loom of Fate, wings are shot off flies, and exploding rats are used as weapons; if you can't deal with it, it's best to jump off the train as its leaving the station. However, in a movie full of ridiculous things happening, perhaps the most ridiculous is that James McAvoy's girlfriend would cheat on him with some oafy, unattractive douche.

For a movie about people who spend the majority of their time slinging around lots of knives and guns, the proceedings are almost jarringly good-spirited and freewheeling. I kept waiting for things to get a bit darker than they did (even "Shoot 'Em Up" reveled in black humor or shock value), but I was okay with the fact that they didn't; this movie's just interested in showing you a good time. At the end of the day, this is most emphatically an "action movie," and a big reason why I think it works is that there's something about the action sequences that aren't just energetic, but downright energizing. I could see some finding the perpetual nature of them alone a bit numbing, but by the time we hit the halfway mark, I felt overly-caffeinated and was ready for more. There have certainly been more violent movies than this, but it may hold the record for most slo-mo brains splattering out the back of heads in a major motion picture. There are two major, excellent action sequences in the first 20 minutes alone, and some may cite a climactic train shootout (with bullets that keep smacking into each other) as a favorite, but the moment the movie truly won me over is when one target is killed through his limo's moonroof... by McAvoy and Jolie flipping their car over the limo mid-drive. Yes, it's that sort of movie. It's also the sort of movie that has difficulty sustaining the adrenaline it builds up by the time we near the end, but there's enough here to satisfy even the most A.D.D. of action fanatics.

The film is (understandably) being sold with Jolie's supporting presence, but McAvoy's clearly the star of this show. While I couldn't be happier for the supremely talented Scot, I find it highly amusing -- and a little sad -- that after his illuminating, complex turn in the beneath-him "Atonement," it's his crack at being 'James McAvoy: Action Hero' that may turn him into a household name. It's also regrettable that for an actor who's built up 'heartthrob' status with his transfixing blue eyes and Scottish brogue, McAvoy is again -- after "Penelope" -- asked to perform his role with an American accent (blue eyes still here though). The Yankee accent has improved since the pig-nose movie, but it still has some work to do; almost all of his lines are read in a whiney monotone that grated on my nerves a little bit. Still, for a role that largely requires him to shriek and get the shit beaten out of him, McAvoy holds his own, and makes for a comfortable, suitably sweaty action hero by the third act. Jolie, who makes her first appearance around the 15-minute point, is surprisingly very good as the sultry action queen Fox, and it struck me that this is the sort of role she was born to play. She barely speaks (and shows her ass), but she gets across so much with a lot of stares and head tilts; she has a particularly choice moment when Wesley bellows "Leave me alone!" and she just gives him a glance-and-smile that radiates "Aw, isn't that cute." Freeman yet again, boringly, plays wise old mentor man, and mostly just glowers a lot, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something irresistible about hearing his God-like dulcet tones say the word "motherfucker."

I don't want to make the claim that the substance level here rivals the style, but beyond the loud inanity, there are actual intriguing ideas. Wesley's questioning of authoritative killing orders ("What'd he do that he deserves to die?") are mined for their eventual thematic heft, and a twist at around the 80-minute mark is actually thought-provoking in its implications. When attempting to ease Wesley's concerns, Fox offers up the concept of "Kill one, maybe save a thousand," and that the film doesn't really explore the complexities of that "maybe" is one of its weaknesses; it'd much rather spend time on minor quirks like Fox listening to "If You Like Pina Coladas..." on the radio post-high-speed-chase, and a bullet flying through the donut of Wesley's fat boss. Since this is a film more about things being shot up really good rather than one about narrative/thematic complexities, I didn't find the simplicity a crippling blow, but time spent on them would've been nice.

Lest I forget, "Wanted" is a comic book adaptation. There is always so much speculation and obsession on the level of 'faithfulness' on film adaptations of, say, "Spider-Man" or "Iron Man," that it's often overlooked in the case of lesser-known works (a massive re-tooling of "I Am Legend" didn't stop it from grossing half a billion dollars). While "Wanted" the film is badass enough in its own right, from the little I know about its source material, I don't know how pleased I'd be if I were a fan of the comic books. Despite author Mark Millar's blessing (I'm sure his big fat check coaxed that blessing out a bit), this doesn't really resemble his original works, aside from some core ideas; while I understand the reasons for that -- it would've made for a much more nihilistic and disturbing film -- something about it doesn't sit right with me. In the comics, Wesley is joining an elite group of super-villainous assassins and numerous innocents are gleefully laid waste too... here, not so much. For those who haven't read them (i.e. most of the people who are going to see this movie), it likely won't matter much, but it's disheartening to know that a much cooler version of this movie had potential to be in store.

Despite (or for some, because of) the missed opportunities, once you settle in and relax, "Wanted" is supremely dumb fun of the highest order. With traces of "The Matrix," "Fight Club," "Speed Racer" and "Shoot 'Em Up" rolled into one deliciously goofy package, it's a high-energy action-filled blast that's practically tailor-made for the summer movie season. Despite its defiance of all sense of reality and logic, it doesn't insult your intelligence; in fact, it does quite the opposite: it assumes you're smart enough to acknowledge and go along with how silly it is. It may be overwhelming in the worst way possible for some, while others will already be salivating for a sequel, but either way, it fills the current quality-action void in our multiplex. Filmed with a rarely-seen glee that showcases all that can be glorious about hardcore violence, "Wanted" is basically the filmic equivalent of Red Bull, and that was just fine with me.


Post a Comment

<< Home