Saturday, June 26, 2010
Wanted is a comic book adaptation, but the property is not a long-established one, so the story is new to most viewers. Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) plays an average Joe living a below-average life. He hates his job, he hates his boss, he hates his girlfriend, he hates his best friend (who is sleeping with his girlfriend), he hates the father that left him as an infant, and he hates the panic attacks he gets when any of these irritate him more than usual. One day, Fox (Jolie) arrives and tells Wesley that his life is in danger and that his late father (David O'Hara) was a super-powered assassin. It takes a cross-town shootout and car chase to make that seem plausible, but it works. Fox takes Wesley to The Fraternity, an ancient secret society of assassins. The group's head, Sloan (Morgan Freeman), explains that Wesley must assume the mantle of his father and avenge him, or Wesley will surely be killed by his father's assassin, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann). Naturally, this takes some convincing. In one of the movie's more memorable moments, Wesley is given a gun (for the first time) and told to shoot the wings off of some flies --- or he will be dead in thirty seconds. Wesley begins to panic and the world slows down for a few moments, until he shoots. Surprisingly (well, not really. It's a movie. But it would be surprising if you were Wesley), he has shot the wings off. It turns out that Wesley's panic attacks were the misunderstood symptom of his body rushing extraordinary amounts of blood and adrenaline to his brain. This superhuman ability can make Wesley able to move faster and notice more than average humans. I guess that's a little more plausible than a radioactive spider bite. This ability and natural talent are why Wesley is uniquely qualified to be the man who takes Cross out.
After a brief detour to quit his job and knock out his best friend, Wesley begins to train in earnest. He is trained in marksmanship by the Gunsmith (successful rapper and emotionless actor Common), knives by the Butcher, how to take punishment by the Repairman, explosives by the Exterminator (Konstantin Khabenskiy), and the assassin life in general by Fox. One of the important lessons in The Fraternity is the secret of the Loom of Fate. This loom stitches a fabric that hides a binary code in the missed stitches. The code spells out names, and The Fraternity kills the people whose names are stitched by the loom. Yes, that's right...these international super-powered assassins are taking their cues from a magic loom. Fox justifies this by saying that Fate wants these people dead, so if you "kill one, and maybe save a thousand." Maybe. Wesley is eventually experienced enough to take on Cross, but that just starts a whole new set of problems for Wesley.
The acting in this movie is pretty good for an action movie. James McAvoy handles the lead role well, transforming from wuss to bad-ass in less than two hours, but still maintaining his charm. He's a little whiny for the first bit of the film, but that has more to do with the character and the writing than his acting. Angelina Jolie plays a supporting role in the movie, but it's a pretty big supporting role. Her job here is basically to look sexy and cool, so it's not exactly her most demanding work. Still, she look comfortable as an action star and plays the exasperated instructor to McAvoy well. Morgan Freeman gets a rare opportunity to indulge his bad boy side as the leader of the assassins, but he is still playing his typical wise man role. In other words, he's Morgan Freeman (which is awesome) and gets to swear in this movie. Konstantin Khabenskiy makes his English-language debut after working with director Timur Bekmambetov on several Russian-language films (including the excellent Nightwatch). He is just the adorable Russian guy here, but he's likable. Terrence Stamp makes a brief appearance, and his presence exudes a sense of calm cool to a movie that is all about big and loud. Sure, he deadpans all his dialogue, but it suits his character. The rest of the cast turns in decent, but not particularly noteworthy performances, with the exception of Common, who still hasn't convinced me that he should act.
Visually, this film is amazing. I remember being nervous about the film after watching the previews, but the special effects looked great in the context of the film. Timur Bekmambetov has a gift for stunning visuals, but this movie is especially impressive. The man can direct action, too, which is a big plus. I think this movie's greatest strength is the variety of the action sequences. There are a lot of shoot-out scenes (which makes sense, given Wesley's character), but they offer a lot of small but important variations. As the film goes on, Wesley plays a larger and more impressive part in these scenes, until the inevitable huge shoot-'em-up ending. It was interesting how some fairly subtle clues about Wesley's father are laid out in early action scenes, too. Heck, I'm even okay with the ridiculousness of the "curved bullet" idea that is so central to most of these scenes. Aside from the shoot-outs, though, there are a lot of other high quality action scenes. The driving stunts are far beyond over-the-top, but their ridiculousness actually fits the action in the movie. And there's some knife fights. That's always a plus.
Wanted is adapted from the comic of the same name by Mark Millar, who also wrote Kick-Ass. This movie takes only the very basic principle of the comic and then makes its own story from there. That's not a bad move on the screenwriter's part; the comic has Wesley and The Fraternity as super-villains, so there is no true hero to the story. This script tries to show some heart and does a great job making these characters far more sympathetic than they are in the source material. That makes this a rare exception, where the Hollywood version of something is far more palatable than the original material. Of course, the whole "bending bullets" and Loom of Fate thing are absolutely ridiculous additions. The magic loom is particularly stupid and I am amazed that some screenwriter came up with that as a story element. It's even more amazing that the idea made the final cut of the film. The clumsiness with that aspect of the writing (how do we make assassins look like good guys? Two words: magic loom!) adds quite a bit of lameness to the movie, but it's not a fatal flaw. Like the comic that it is based on, Wanted was never about the story so much as it was about the ain't-it-cool moments. In that regard, this movie definitely succeeds.