A fifty-fifty mix of smart and smart-ass, Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted is a film that would be something like a masterpiece if it was even a third as cool as it thinks it is. That’s not to say that this visually stylish exercise in comic-book violence isn’t without a degree of cool, it’s just that it tries too hard. And it so shamelessly panders to the inner badass in every downtrodden geek, nerd and just-plain-disenfranchised schlep with a Hitlerian boss that its coolness becomes laughable. Put simply, you can’t pander and look cool at the same time.
The story of the film—based on a comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones—is at bottom a kind of rethinking of the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) with a liberal sprinkling of angst-driven echoes of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). If that makes it sound like there’s not much original about Wanted, the truth is that there isn’t. It’s largely a reshuffling of tried and true (in some cases, trite and true) elements with a shiny new coat of paint. That new coat of paint, however, shines something swell. Occasionally, it’s so dazzling that it doesn’t matter much that there’s nothing new underneath.
The problem is that there’s really nothing at all underneath. The movie’s all surface and posturing with a vaguely unpleasant undertone. In a sense, Wanted is comparable to such over-the-top works as Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared (2006), Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank (2006) and Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)—with all the fun surgically removed. Those films, for all their violence and bloodletting (and there’s no lack of either), had a quirky quality that’s missing here. In its stead is a sadomasochistic tone that inches perilously close to the realm of torture-porn horror pictures. The film lingers too much on slo-mo exit wounds for comfort, while the apparent theory that nothing makes a man a man like having the crap repeatedly beaten out of him is dubious to say the least, and slightly depressing.
That aside, the tale of Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy, Atonement) is undeniably entertaining on its own limited merits. Wesley is a long-suffering office drudge with a faithless, bitchy girlfriend (Karen Hager, I’m Not There), a duplicitous best friend (Chris Pratt, TV’s The O.C.) and the boss from hell (Lorna Scott, The Heartbreak Kid). Wesley gets a new lease on life as a member of a brotherhood of assassins. As fantasy goes, who wouldn’t be thrilled—albeit alarmed—to be picked up in a drugstore by a gun-toting woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie), taken on a wild high-speed chase, and then plopped into the midst of a group of—presumably good-guy—trained killers?
And when the wisest man who ever lived, Sloan (Morgan Freeman, of course), proves to you that you have the power to shoot the wings off flies with a .44, tells you that you’re the son of the greatest assassin of all, and sticks three-plus million bucks in your checking account, are you going to be content to go back and get yelled at by your boss while your best friend is having conjugal visits from your girlfriend? If this isn’t every teenage boy’s fantasy—and a lot of post-teenage boys’, too—it’ll do till something better comes along. That you have to get bullied, bludgeoned, beaten senseless and even a little cut up is a small price to pay—especially since these folks can stick you in a restorative bath that clearly redefines “Calgon, take me away.” And anyway, we all know that this kind of abuse is the path to finding yourself, right? It’s even better when you can do it from the safety of your theater seat, of course.
Moral implications (gotta justify being an assassin), pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo (signals on who to kill embedded as binary code on fabric from a special loom!) and a lot of (not all that surprising) plot twists are really all just an excuse for some genuinely spectacular action set pieces. The scenes atop Chicago’s “El” trains are not merely amazing, they’re weirdly beautiful, while the film’s largest action sequence—also set on a train—is as astonishing as it is preposterous, yet manages to look unbelievably realistic. Toss in some truly wonderful sets, a suitably bombastic Danny Elfman score and a horde of exploding rodentia, and it’s hard not to be at least a little beguiled by it all.
Yes, it goes on too long for its own good. Yes, it’s way too in love with its own cleverness (like the groan-worthy scene where Wesley whacks his best friend in the face with a computer keyboard so the letters and an airborne tooth fly off with CGI precision to form a well-known phrase). Yes, it puts forth the unappealing idea that when a poor slob becomes a rich member of a super-secret brotherhood of assassins, he immediately develops the identical self-absorbed worldview as that of Hayden Christensen in Jumper. And no, it doesn’t pay dividends to think about the plot, the subtext or the moral implications of the spectacle. But while Wanted is on-screen, it at least comes close to delivering the wild ride it promised—and since it didn’t promise anything more than that ride, it perhaps shouldn’t be faulted too much on other levels. Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality.