Wanted is one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen, but also one of the most beautifully filmed. And its scream of strangulated middle-class frustration will lodge in your mind afterwards. Wanted, which opens tonight, is like a John Woo remake of Falling Down, the story of a shlubby white-collar worker who finally, violently, breaks free. Spoilers follow.
Call this the summer of Chuck — we're suddenly ass-deep in movies about pathetic nerds who suddenly become super-spies or super-assassins. Get Smart was the story of Steve Carrell's analyst who pores over his computers and analyzes obscure "chatter", until he gets his chance to prove himself as a spy. Both Incredible Hulk and Iron Man had nerd-boy heroes whose experiments turn them into powerhouses. But Wanted may be the first summer escapist movie whose hero is just a weedy accountant.
As you may be able to tell, I'm somewhat conflicted about Wanted. Even star James McAvoy admitted, on the Daily Show, that reading the movie's script he thought it "could just be another awful action film." He only took the gig because he knew that director Timur Bekmambetov was an "evil genius." And he is. That pretty much sums up Wanted: toilet-paper script, poetically wonderful action sequences.
In Wanted, McAvoy plays Wesley Gibson, an office peon who's terrorized by his fat binge-eating boss - who's a caricature straight out of a 1980s Twisted Sister video. She harangues him, clicking her stapler next to his ear, and making impossible demands until he has a panic attack and snarfs anti-anxiety meds like candy.
Meanwhile, when his whiny girlfriend isn't waking him up by bitching at him, she's fucking Wesley's vapid best friend on the table Wesley bought her. McAvoy's running voice-over, and cartoony touches like an ATM that calls Wesley a broke asshole, hammer home his loser status. He's surrounded by dumb bitches, and they're dragging him down. If only he could meet a woman with a killer bod and no personality whatsoever, apart from a vapid smirk. Enter Angelina Jolie.
And here's where it starts to veer away from its source material, the graphic novel written by Mark Millar. It turns out Wesley's the son of a super-assassin, a member of an assassin "Fraternity" led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). And those anxiety attacks that he's been medicating himself for? Turns out they're actually his super-senses kicking in, allowing him to slow down his perceptions to the point where he can shoot the wings off a fly. They only work when his heart rate accelerates to 400 bpm - making Wesley the second hero of a recent movie who gets superpowers when his pulse races (the first being Bruce Banner, of course.)
So Wesley has the raw power of gun-fu (including the ability to curve a bullet's trajectory) but he needs to be broken down and rebuilt as a bad-ass. The movie takes us through a long boot-camp sequence, including plenty of montages, showing Wesley training and getting the crap beaten out of him over and over again. He gets smashed up a zillion times, and it's lucky the Fraternity has a nice healing bath instead of the traditional hot-tub.
Wesley's a loser. He's a pussy. He's a nothing wimp. He's a fucking nothing. The breaking-Wesley sequences are lovingly over-the-top, including a knife expert who slices Wesley up in a room full of hanging animal carcasses. Finally, after being beaten to a pulp for the hundredth time, Wesley confesses that he doesn't know who he is - and within seconds, Freeman's Sloan swoops in and starts the process of building him up again.
The rest of the movie is a pretty standard action movie about Wesley going after the guy who he thinks killed his father. And the Fraternity turns out not to be what it seems: it has a whole cockamamie backstory about monks a thousand years ago who learned to read binary code in the threads from a special loom, but the real story turns out to be even more cockamamie than that. It's just bursting with cockamamie. Everything rockets towards a completely ludicrous conclusion that will make you feel like your head is full of rocks. Visually, Wanted is comparable to a Tarantino movie, but I would have killed for some of Kill Bill's sharp writing.
So, like I mentioned, Wanted's saving grace is the direction from Bekmambetov, who also directed Nightwatch and Daywatch. He brings a Ringo Lam-esque flair to endless scenes of knife fights in a meat forest, shootouts and car-train-gun battles. Actually, it's not just the action — pretty much every scene in the movie is shot hyper-kinetically and with super-emphasis. If you're in this movie's target demographic, you've probably seen the clips and trailers with the cars flipping over and the slow-motion shooting, or Jolie splayed on the hood of a car Death Proof-style, shooting like a maniac. The whole movie's like that.
This would probably be a good movie to see on crystal meth.
What's more, Bekmambetov does such a good job with the cartoony visuals that you almost don't care if the movie makes sense, or is vaguely evil. It's just a fantastic spectacle, brilliantly shot violence porn with smatterings of real porn. If the Fraternity really existed, and it needed a legion of couch potatoes to serve as cannon-fodder, it could totally use this movie as a recruiting video. It's pure thrilling escapism, with hardly any of the "great responsibility" angst that usually laces escapist fare. What's more, it has total conviction, thanks to a mostly solid cast: you believe that these people are bad-asses who really enjoy killing. And McAvoy makes Wesley's transition from droolbag to super-killer totally believable.
A lot of the film's marketing revolves around the sexiness of Angelina Jolie, but there's no sexual tension between her and McAvoy, or anyone else. We stare at her naked ass, but she acts as though all she thinks about is killing. She's sublimated all of her sexuality into her gun, and the only time she's sexual is when she's using sex to get something. (She does make out with Wesley in front of his weaselly ex-girlfriend, but you get the sense she's just doing Wesley a favor.)
As I said, Wanted isn't too subtle about embodying the fantasy of breaking free of the mindless service job and escaping from the nagging bitches to become a real man. (Early on, Wesley's voiceover talks about his repetitive strain injury, but it never keeps him from practicing the same gun move a few thousand times.) It's significant that the Fraternity's headquarters is a textile factory - obviously it's partly because the factory houses the Loom of Fate, but it's also meant to contrast with Wesley's dumb office. Wesley's stupid "customer account manager" job is emasculating because he doesn't make anything, he doesn't work with his hands, and he just moves bullshit pieces of information around. The Fraternity, meanwhile, works among giant machines, they're manly garment workers who create a physical product. If you want to be a real man, the movie suggests, you should ditch the pointless symbolic labor of the cubicle farm and haul the moldering corpse of the manufacturing economy out of its grave.
So, bottom line: Wanted works great as a fun, fluffy action movie. It's not up to the standard of Tarantino or any of the great Hong Kong or Japanese directors, partly because nobody in the film is particularly likable. And it may annoy you if you're not in its target demographic. But if you're looking for a fun shoot-em-up with a huge dose of high-energy escapism, it's pretty much perfect for what it is.