Well, it’s official. The times have changed drastically since the days of pumped-up muscleheads like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vin Diesel—anybody can be an action hero.
And it’s a wonderful thing. Especially in “Wanted,” a movie based off of Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ popular comic book miniseries. The movie strips the comic of most of its psychological darkness in favor of a more fantasy-like tone. By fantasy, I don’t mean swords and hobbits, of course. I mean that “Wanted” is, quite simply, every nerdy fanboy’s fantasy come true in fast-paced, ridiculously fun fashion. Where else can an unsatisfied cubicle slave (who doesn’t have the balls to stand up to his best friend even though he knows his pal is screwing his girlfriend) be plucked out of office-scurity to bend bullets around corners by a secret group of assassins, discover a miracle hot bath that can regenerate your body from almost any wound, and get to kiss Angelina Jolie long and hard in front of said cheating girlfriend?
After a crackerjack opening scene that thumbs its snotty nose at Sir Isaac Newton and piques maximum curiosity, we meet our hero. James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “The Last King of Scotland”) is like a younger Edward Norton in “Fight Club.” Crappy job, bad tie, sick of his worldly possessions and in search of something new and exciting that will make his life worthwhile. In short, he’s a schlub and he knows it. Luckily for him, a mysterious, extremely hot woman who doesn’t talk very much (Jolie, as the appropriately named Fox) finds him in a grocery store. The shoot-‘em-up that occurs there is not just expertly choreographed like all the action scenes in “Wanted,” it’s got a wiseacre sense of humor.
McAvoy doesn’t want to fight—he wants to get the hell out of there. Flying bullets, high-speed car chases, and general mayhem? Forget it. He’s not that kind of guy. Until now. Enter a lot of money in his bank account and a new group of dead-serious badass friends called the Fraternity led by Morgan Freeman (again playing the older mentor role, but at least having some wicked fun with it). What follows is the requisite training montage (let’s call it hazing) and the complete inversion of everything McAvoy’s character never stood up for. Try watching these over-the-top revenge scenes and tell me this movie is not good, trashy fun.
Besides being the ultimate wish-fulfillment dream for any male in its coveted demographic, this violent R-rated picture challenges “The Matrix” in more than just the premise department. Director Timur Bekmambetov, whose previous credits include the record-breaking Russian action-horror films “Night Watch” and “Day Watch”, is interested in no less than delivering a boundary-pushing reinvigoration of the action genre. Besides setting a pace that never lets up, Bekmambetov uses CGI the way it should be used—blended in with reality in such a way that we barely even notice it is computer-generated. We know that what we are seeing is impossible, but set against a backdrop we are familiar with, it seems so real.
The action set pieces in “Wanted” are so engaging that they actually feel fresh, and that is saying something. We saw cars hop over other cars sideways in “Speed Racer” earlier this summer (which was totally badass), but that was couched in a safe, dayglo kid’s world. Set in this context of ultimate badassery, Bekmambetov takes the spectacle to a new level in a climactic train sequence and then has the nerve to add a big plot twist right in the middle of it.
Speaking of the story, it has to be mentioned that McAvoy’s Wesley character (yes, he has a name—but since he’s really “everyman,” why bother?) is quite a different animal in the comic. He’s less amoral in the movie, which makes him someone you can root for a whole lot easier and serves the purpose of this movie very well. Some fans of the comic may feel betrayed, but they’ll more than likely cheer at some of the mind-blowing (literally) action sequences.
For all the ridiculous plot elements that work, due to stylish direction and a tone that balances skillfully yet precariously between silly and serious, there is one thing that just must be called out. It’s wise that, despite its importance to the plot, Bekmambetov spends precious little time on it, but here’s the deal: (MINOR SPOILER ALERT!) The Fraternity gets their missions by reading a secret code embedded in—get this—looms. They all work in a giant weaving factory (no kidding!) and a God-like group called The Fates (or is it just “fate”?), whom nobody ever sees, decides who they are going to kill next. There’s more than a little “Minority Report” in this idea, since The Fates can see into the future and presumably what evil specific people will do. The Fraternity is only keeping a balance. Sounds like a busy, busy job. I wonder what “future evil” qualifies one for assassination. It’s a sign of the times that the first one we see killed is a businessman in a board meeting.
Most importantly, let’s keep our eye on why this over-the-top picture works so well. It doesn’t have a musclebound steroid abuser who we can’t relate to spewing trite one-liners. With the rise of Seth Rogen, Steve Carell, and the overall average-guy trend in movie comedies these days (and the apparent death of outrageous sketch-comedy-type characters a la Mike Myers), it’s no surprise that “Wanted” should bring that same trend to the ultra-violent, ultra-ridiculous action movie.
The King is dead! Long live the King!