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.