For any red-blooded, alpha male who loves to masturbate while armed – this is your movie. “Wanted” disguises its celebration of brutality in a coat of self-actualization and super slick visuals, giving this surprisingly well-executed (no pun intended) actioneer a flashy veneer to cover its misguided and morally bankrupt heart.
For fans of hard-core bloody action however, you can’t say this film doesn’t deliver. Ridiculous in the extreme, Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov at least seems to understand the inherent silliness of the concept and just goes wild with it. Armed with deliberate odes to the satire of “Fight Club” and the bullet-time visuals of “The Matrix”, ‘Wanted’ is all about gunplay, fast cars and explosive bloody violence. If a young John Woo had made love to an ILM graphics server – this would be the offspring.
All of the action defies any rational or physical laws in such outlandish ways that it’s hard not to admire its sheer balls and the often intriguing way a simple assassination is turned into an ultra-violent ballet of ornate CG bullets, voluminous blood sprays and gravity-defying acrobatic feats. It’s a film that’s unapologetic about the simple-minded macho bravado it both indulges in and condemns those who don’t share that viewpoint.
Anyone with a more learned understanding of the world however is well aware that machismo is simply a coping mechanism, and “Wanted” is no different. In spite of all its technical artistry, at its heart the film follows a very generic and ultimately tedious story combining all the tenants of superhero origin mythology with a revenge thriller. Its characters are decidedly one-note thugs, its metaphors are far from subtle (there is quite literally a loom of fate), the satire is sitcom-level banal, and an admirable message of self-empowerment becomes corrupted by the sheer adherence to the belief that random violence is the only means to that end.
Worse still, the film shows that these acts bear no consequences whatsoever – the victims are all faceless corporate fat cats, the police are nowhere to be seen, and all injuries can be healed by lying for a few hours in a hot bath covered in a coating that resembles either wax or dried semen (it can’t be the later as the subtext of this film is in no way that smart or biting). Whilst almost everyone will understand and take the film antics for the pre-pubescent male fantasy indulgences that they are, one does wonder if that disconnect from reality won’t come back and bite the ass of some bored not-so-bright teen who – inspired to try curving bullets – learns about Newton’s first law the hard way.
Morally it may be reprehensible, but the patchwork script overcomes much of its barriers thanks to some solid performances. Scottish hunk James McAvoy makes a pretty good debut as an action hero, armed with a decent American accent and a new muscular build. The young thesp has displayed a great range in the past decade in such roles as the wrongly-accused lover in “Atonement”, Idi Amin’s naive doctor in “The Last King of Scotland”, and the ambitious journo son of Bill Nighy’s newspaper editor in 2003’s brilliant “State of Play” mini-series.
Whilst his work here is not on those levels, he gives a more realistic weight and credibility to a role that travels an arc from one extreme to another. Starting out so pathetically underfoot and winding up so abrasively arrogant it’s hard to ultimately sympathise with Wesley, yet his scenes of breaking the cycle of being endlessly beaten down by friends and co-workers, and of his progress in training to become a killer, are well done enough that its impossible not to cheer him on for much of the middle act.
Angelina Jolie also impresses in an obviously fun role as fellow assassin Fox. Swapping between a knowing smirk and a more serious hardened killer, the actress is obviously enjoying herself and makes a pretty uninteresting role glow- and not just in its brief moment of rear nudity. Freeman likewise gives weight to the standard ‘boss’ character, showing off a slightly darker and coarser version of his usual mentor type role (seeing him say motherf–ker is almost worth the price of admission).
The action and visuals vary in quality. All the elaborate bullet time tricks become tediously repetitive, the car chases are so outlandish that they have little to no suspense. Yet the train collapse sequence is breathtakingly executed, the opening shootout is pretty spectacular, and the Willard-eseque finale trick is perversely fun. The score is blaringly loud and decidedly unimpressive, the voiceover has some nice dark humor but does cross the line into nastiness a few times, and the production design is notably cheap but effectively gritty.
Ultimately this is a film not designed to stand up to critical analysis (or repeat viewings) as its a textbook example of ‘munitions porn’. Whereas ‘torture porn’ corrupted the horror genre into believing suffering and gore is more important than scares or atmosphere, so too ‘munitions porn’ corrupts action junkies into believing a lot of gunplay and flashy CG tricks are more important than real stunt work and a genuine sense of peril. It’s smarter than the average actioneer of late though, and certainly shows that Bekmambetov has a bright future in Hollywood. For its specific demographic “Wanted” is a lot of fun, yet having Jolie fellate a gun barrel for two hours would’ve been cheaper and probably just as effective for a good portion of that audience.