The question that comes to mind while watching the first big action sequence in WANTED is how in the heck are these folks going to top this? Automobiles do things Newtonian physics can barely account for and so do the people driving them. It, like the other chase scenes in this big, messy, gloriously over-the-top film, is a mad cross between Busby Berkeley and the demolition derby with grace somehow trumping brute force. The same can’t be said for the film as a whole, but that doesn’t stop it from being outrageously enjoyable. Start with the assumption that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and even the violence becomes less gory. Plus there is a train ride later that will take your breath away.
It helps that James McAvoy, making the requisite career move by switching for one film at least from romantic lead to action star, is excellent as Wesley, the office drone who has his true destiny handed to him in the luscious form of much-tattooed Fox (Angelina Jolie). She picks him up, literally, while he is waiting for a refill of his anxiety meds. In one fell swoop he is liberated from his dead-end life of a cheating and annoying girlfriend, a best friend who is the instrument of her cheating, and a self-loathing and over-groomed supervisor much given to snapping a stapler at people to make her point. It’s a life where even the ATM seems to be summing up what a loser he is as it also gleefully informs him that he is out of money, a life where a putting his name in an internet search engine returns bupkis. It’s a change that carries with it the sort of shock usually reserved for a traumatic breakthrough, say, birth. This one, though involves, gunplay, preternatural reflexes, and a car chase that ups the ante for every cinema chase sequence that follows. Ever.
There is, of course, a secret society behind it all, The Fraternity of Assassins, who for a thousand years have lived by the code that killing one will save a thousand. And, of course, Wesley is tied to it in mysterious ways that explain the true origin of those anxiety attacks, as well as why his father walked out on him a week after he was born. Nowadays the Fraternity is based in Chicago, where it also runs a textile mill, both under the command of Sloan (Morgan Freeman). He’s the one who reveals Wesley’s true calling, has him trained in the ways of the Fraternity, and then sends him off to avenge his father.
This is the classic hero’s journey as retold in the comic book series by J.G. Jones and Mark Millar, and filtered through the screenplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan. The sense of playful darkness is in the hands of Timur Bekmambetov , who brought Sergei Lukyanenko’s novels about the battle between darkness and light to the screen with his dazzling Russian-language films DAY WATCH and NIGHT WATCH. He brings the same piquant humor that nicely tempers the violence, not the mention the fantasy elements. That last is where he is at his best, as in his ci-mentioned films, he takes the monotony of normal life and deftly folds the fantastic into it. The regular and brutal beatings Wesley takes during his assassin training are a more direct reflection of the less physical but somehow more demoralizing beatings he was taking in his previous life. The difference is that the former might actually lead to a meaningful life, or a blessed release. Toss in a paraffin bath that can cure anything, rats with bombs, and Fox’s willingness to make Wesley’s old girlfriend very sorry she treated him bad, and this is a sleek morsel of escapism.
It is also an irresistible premise. Who doesn’t long to find out that the empty life of quiet desperation isn’t a permanent state of affairs? McAvoy as the audience surrogate maintains the gee-whiz factor without undercutting his transformation into a credible assassin with more that human powers. He also works out the moral quandary of killing with just the right angst to maintain his essential humanity. It’s that and his ability to make Wesley constantly and truly amazed without a trace of irony that makes the whole thing work, even when things tread perilously close to being silly. Let’s just say that switching Weavers for Masons as the conceit for a secret society is not as slick as it sounds. On the other hand, Terrence Stamp as the villain of the piece is, and so is Freeman, who with that grounded presence and that growly, resonant voice, embodies authority that brooks no questioning from characters or audience. As for Jolie, this is a part that takes the fullest advantage of Jolie’s feral qualities in a way that hasn’t been done since GIRL, INTERRUPTED or GIA. This is a woman who doesn’t just look like she really could play chicken with a subway and win, she also looks like there is nothing she enjoys more.
WANTED stumbles after its jaw-dropping first act, but that’s more a testament to that act’s ability to seduce an audience by speaking to its deepest longings than a knock of what follows. Thanks to screamingly agile camera work, and a first-rate cast firing on all cylinders, it stumbles, but never entirely falls.