Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wanted: Not so much

Wanted (2008) • View trailer for Wanted
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and relentless violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.08
Buy DVD: Wanted • Buy Blu-Ray: Wanted [Blu-ray]

The good news: As hoped, coupling Timur Bekmambetov's adrenalin-fueled, hyper-stylized flourishes with a reasonably linear script results in a movie that's somewhat more approachable than the Russian director's absurdly over-praised Night Watch and its sequel, Day Watch.
While Fox (Angelina Jolie) watches impassively, Wesley (James McAvoy, left)
accepts a pistol from The Gunsmith (Common) and tries to believe — to really,
truly believe — that he can make bullets "bend" around obstructing objects
after having been fired.

The bad news: Wanted ain't that much better.

Fans of The Matrix and its mystical, too-cool-for-the-room characters probably will devour this stuff and nonsense, and fairness demands that I acknowledge having found portions of Wanted amusing and occasionally clever. But the physics- defying CGI stuntwork and perpetual gunplay become tiresome, as do Bekmambetov's crazy-quilt visuals.

This guy makes movies for people who find MTV's smash-cut editing a bit too leisurely.

The other potential problem concerns the fact that screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan have screwed around with the plotline as presented in the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones graphic novel on which this film is based, and not to the property's improvement. Arrogant scripters who insist on leaving their own leaden footprints do so at their own risk: Chances are, the original writer(s) did just fine on their own, thank you very much.

And by so drastically mutating the character dynamic, Brandt & Co. have completely compromised our ability to identify with some (all? none?) of the players in this highly warped fantasy.

The result, therefore, is more comic book than the original comic book. Bekmambetov does pretty well with sheer momentum — he's particularly adept at that — but the vehicle sputters and eventually sinks beneath the weight of its own metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

None of which can be blamed on the cast members, who give it their all. Star James McAvoy, in particular, holds things together far longer than the film deserves; he's a perfect nebbish who blossoms into a fully credible reluctant assassin.

Angelina Jolie is similarly ideal as one of McAvoy's mysterious mentors; she has the smirky, amused superiority that this film desperately needs ... a sense that she knows this is all over-revved nonsense, but she's game for a good time, and we should do no less.

And, for awhile, the invitation is tantalizing.

McAvoy stars as Wesley, a cubicle-dwelling drone who pushes papers in some insignificant office, where he's harassed on a regular basis by a tyrannical boss (Lorna Scott, wonderfully dreadful) who throws her considerable weight about while terrorizing everybody under her command. Wes gets little relief at home, where his skanky girlfriend seizes every opportunity to do the nasty with our hero's office mate and supposed best friend.

Wes' life, in short, is an unrelenting nightmare of brow-beaten insignificance.

Things take an intriguing turn one evening at the local supermarket, where Wes barely has a chance to register the presence of a hot babe dubbed Fox (Jolie) before she's trying to protect him from a guy (Thomas Kretschmann, as Cross) who wants to kill him.


Ah, therein lies a tale.

After a high-speed vehicular chase that's simply nuts — Bekmambetov so loves to smash up cars and trucks! — Wes is introduced to Sloan (a suitably dour Morgan Freeman), who heads The Fraternity, a centuries-old league of trained assassins pledged to carry out the unbreakable orders of destiny ... as revealed in the threads of the "Loom of Fate." (Hey, you think I could make this up?)

The organization's motto, which Fox believes to the core of her soul, is to kill one and thus save a thousand. Some people, to put it bluntly, deserve to die.

Unfortunately, a former Fraternity member has gone rogue — that would be Cross — and has been targeting his former colleagues. Wesley, although it takes him awhile to accept as much, has the latent skills of a master Fraternity operative, and perhaps is the only guy who can take Cross down. Wes simply needs to train hard enough to unlock these specialties.

Such talents include super speed and agility, a helpful healing factor — thanks to an occasional dip in a pool of what looks like white wax — and the ability to bend a bullet's flightpath after it has left the gun.

Handy stuff.

The film's first act is by far the best, as Wes gets repeatedly battered by Fraternity members who take obvious delight in torturing the newbie. McAvoy makes the punishment look and seem authentic; it's hard not to wince at each knife slash or punch to the face. (One wonders if that rejuvenating bath also repairs broken teeth, as often as Wes gets hit in the mouth, but I guess we're not supposed to go there.)

As befits a story where the alpha babe is known as Fox, the rest of the Fraternity members go by handles rather than ordinary-type names. Wesley gets his weapons training from The Gunsmith, a role imbued with suitable stoicism by Grammy Award-winning music artist Common (who, given his own performance name, seems right at home here).

Marc Warren, recognized from the British TV series Hustle, is The Repairman, the group's deliberately misnamed pugilist; Dato Bakhtadze is quite sinister as the knife-wielding Butcher; and Konstantin Khabensky — who worked with Bekmambetov in Night Watch, Day Watch and Irony of Fate: The Continuation — straps little bombs onto rats while fulfilling his role as The Exterminator.

Such mordant flourishes are a welcome relief from the increasingly silly action scenes, which can't help making us wonder why any of these Fraternity operatives ever could be killed. Their superhuman skills and senses seem easily equipped to permit the dodging of bullets, despite the gory sequences — both played for corrosive laughter — that open and close this film.

And when Wesley walks away from the horrific train accident that climaxes the second act, it's time to throw up our hands and abandon all semblance of logic, which also is the point at which we cease to care about any of these characters. How can we? They're not "real" by any reasonable definition; each is as strong or oddly vulnerable as any given scene demands.

The train sequence also illustrates another issue that becomes more bothersome as the story progresses: the collateral damage involving civilians. It's one thing for Fraternity members to selective assassinate their targets — or each other — but something entirely different when scores (hundreds?) of innocents get taken out in the heat of battle. The story's already thin veneer of moral certitude wavers and then vanishes completely ... as does our willingness to accept Wesley as a put-upon hero.

As cinematic pulp, Wanted is a helluva ride, although it lacks the truly outrageous momentum of, say, Clive Owen's recent starring turn in Shoot 'em Up or Jason Statham's wild-eyed sprint through Crank. Bekmambetov's film has a better storyline than both those crazed flicks, but they're more fun to watch ... McAvoy and Jolie notwithstanding.

Point being, plenty of Asian, American and European filmmakers are better at this stuff than Bekmambetov. Folks may love him back in Russia, but that doesn't make him ready for prime time on this side of the world.

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