Director: Timur Bekmambetov Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp
Running Time: 110 min.
*** (out of ****)
There are some actors who I love to see stretch and challenge themselves, taking a wide variety of roles that push them out of their comfort zone. Angelina Jolie is NOT one of them. We all know why she's here. There’s no sense hiding it. It wasn’t to save the world or adopt babies. It was for her to expertly handle a firearm as her tattooed body hangs out of a dangerously high speeding vehicle. We want her to kill people and look hot doing it. Lately, she’s done neither, opting instead to star in a string of boring, emotionally draining roles that would cure even the worst cases of insomnia.
There are so few believable female action stars out there today that the loss of Jolie to more serious projects was a major blow, at least from where I sat. That’s why, if nothing else, Wanted should be celebrated as a return to form for her as she once again slips into the kind of bad-ass part she was born to play. If every role she took from here on out was identical to this I wouldn’t complain. She has a gift and should never hesitate using it.
My enthusiasm for her return to the genre that made her is tempered slightly by the fact that her character is underwritten and the film containing her big comeback seems more interested in drowning itself out in a pool of Matrix-like effects. But unlike that overrated piece of ‘90’s cyber-junk this at least has the decency to not pass itself off as anything more than disposable mindless entertainment. If you view it on that level it’ll work, despite its many flaws. The first hour introduces us to easily the whiniest crybaby protagonist of the year but you can't tell me it isn't entertaining. The movie have missed its calling as a workplace comedy in the vain of Office Space because it’s been a while since I laughed as hard during an action film as I did in the opening minutes of this one. What comes after isn’t nearly as clever, recycling a tired plot from other films, but it doesn’t really make a difference because it’s executed fine. Wanted can be sometimes be more annoying than enthralling but the overall result is a satisfying adrenaline rush.
Imagine nearly every social encounter you have being accompanied by a cold sweat, a flushed face and the sound of your heart beating out of your chest at 140 beats per minute. That’s the cubicle dwelling life of anxiety ridden office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) an accounts manager who’s life is so boring that when he "Googles" himself nothing comes up. When not being verbally abused by his tyrant boss (Lorna Scott) he’s arguing with his bitchy girlfriend (Kristen Hager) who’s cheating on him with his best friend Barry (Chris Pratt) during lunch hour. What’s the highlight of Wes' day? Buying Barry condoms.
Everything changes when he encounters the sexy and dangerous Fox (Jolie) who rescues him from a drug store attack from Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) a rogue assassin. He finds out from Fox that his father (David O’ Hara) was really “Mr. X,” a member of a thousand year old group of assassins known as The Fraternity and he was just murdered on a rooftop by Cross. Fox and the organization’s head honcho Sloan (Morgan Freeman) take Wes under their wing with the goal of molding him into a fully-Fraternized killing machine capable of exacting revenge on this traitor who murdered his father.
The first half hour of Wanted is executed just about as perfectly as you could hope for. Thats' due to the hilariously deadpan depiction of Wes' pathetic existence at work and the spot-on narration accompanying it. The tone is just right and that combined with some clever editing makes the character relatable. Sure, it’s a rip-off of Fight Club but if you’re going to crib from a movie you may as well make sure it’s great one, and you better do it well. Then there's up and comer McAvoy, in a role that’s a complete 180 from his work in last year’s Oscar contending period drama Atonement. He plays a wuss so well it’s almost scary and does it with an American accent that rarely falters. Pratt steals nearly every scene he’s in with his smug delivery as the disingenuous “best friend” Barry, a jerk I’m betting many will recognize immediately from their everyday lives. As they will Janice, Wesley’s boss from hell who has an unhealthy obsession with her stapler. These characters are played with such gusto you’d think the actors are having the time of their lives. If not, they sure fooled me.
After being treated to the most entertaining use of a computer keyboard I’ve ever seen the material moves into more problematic territory with the training of Wesley and mythology behind the Fraternity’s “kill one, save a thousand” philosophy ( I’m still not exactly sure how that philosophy comes into play when you’ve just killed a trainload of innocent people). The screenplay is loosely based on Mark Millar’s graphic novel series and just about any other action film you could think of. You don’t go into a movie like this expecting a riveting, complex character study, nor is it one, but I was surprised by a well-placed twist that not only made sense and took the story in a much more interesting direction. It definitely raised the stakes, convincing me that it had more on its mind than I originally thought. It’s still dumb, but definitely not lazy.
Wesley’s training sequences also heavily borrow (steal?) from Fight Club and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (of Nightwatch and Daywatch fame) can’t seem to get enough of that Matrix “bullet time” technology and heavily relies on many fast forward and slow-motion sequences. It works for this kind of film and Bekmambetov really knows how to shoot exhilarating action scenes but there were times where it felt more annoying than exciting. How many times do we need to see curving bullets or the point of view from one as it finds its (human) target?
McAvoy and Jolie play off each other well and when Wes first meets Fox his dumb founded expressions and over-the-top theatrics sell the whole experience perfectly. Though it occurs seemingly overnight, his transition from pencil pusher to certifiable badass killing machine works, which says a lot about his range of skill as an actor.
As Fox, Jolie has a smaller role than you may expect but she makes the most of it. I wish they did more with her but in this kind of a role just her presence is enough. She looks great (even if she could use a cheeseburger or two) and despite her slight frame she’s STILL incredibly believable with a gun in her hand. At times she looks bored with it but the important thing is that we’re not, a claim that can’t be made about some of her other film work of late.
If you’re an actress with that much screen presence and natural charisma the last thing you want to do is take parts that suppress it, which is why this is exactly what she should be doing. Forget about being taken seriously as an actress. Why bother? She’ll always be known as a celebrity first and this is the kind of part, more than any other, where we can check that distracting information at the door and just have some fun. Morgan Freeman once again plays his old, wise authority figure role but I appreciated that he at least took a little bit of a detour with it this time around.
Make no mistake about it, this is a dumb movie with little to no nutritional value, but it’s also a thrill ride that never lets up. The soundtrack rocks and features an original song by Danny Elfman (“The Little Things”) that would deserve inclusion among this year’s Best Original Song nominees if there isn’t some ridiculous rule disqualifying it (and I'm sure there probably is).
While I watching this I wasn’t even sure what I thought but then after it sunk in I realized it accomplished exactly what it needed to with style and precision, despite the fact there isn’t an original idea to be found. It almost plays like a clumsier version of last year’s superior Shoot ‘Em Up but just seeing Jolie in a role like this again is reason enough to recommend it. Two sequels are planned if for no other than to make a quick buck because this story certainly can’t support them. The fun here was watching the wimpy protagonist indoctrinated into this crazy world so without that I don't know what's left. But in a summer full of big blockbuster disappointments for me Wanted at least manages to hold its ground.