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Wanted   B

Universal Pictures / Spyglass Entertainment

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Writers: Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Chris Morgan
Cast: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann, Common, Kristen Hager, Marc Warren.

Review by Rob Vaux

The central question behind Wanted is one that no summer action picture should have to answer: is flashy technique enough to justify fundamentally amoral content? Should we excuse the film's nasty ethical tone because the images are so gorgeous and Angelina Jolie looks so cool? One can, of course, and given the mindless kinetics on display in Wanted, one probably should. But that still doesn't get rid of the troubling notions lurking underneath all the nifty gunfights, sexy editing, and dulcet sounds of Morgan Freeman saying, "Kill this motherfucker." We can take the ride and have a lot of fun -- there's certainly good fun to be had here -- but it behooves us to stop for at least a moment or two and observe the foundation upon which it is built.

In essence, Wanted is just a jerk-off empowerment fantasy for teenage boys (and teenage boys at heart). It revels in the notion of driving fast cars, shooting people with impunity, and having Jolie slip you the tongue in front of your two-timing girlfriend. The very title suggests a state of desirability manifest in its scenario, as hapless office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) discovers that he's actually a member of an elite "Fraternity" of assassins. Those aren't panic attacks he's having: they're surges in adrenaline which, if properly controlled, will allow him to do amazing things like curve bullets around corners and cartwheel across the tops of moving trains. Suddenly, he has a wise sensei in the form of chief assassin Sloan (Freeman), a smoking hot mentor in Fox (Jolie), and a chance to blow large holes in people while collecting millions of dollars that allow him to finally shed the detritus of a stiflingly banal existence. And of course, there's a lingering villain (Thomas Kretschmann) who he and only he can destroy, which led the Fraternity to recruit him in the first place. Now he's... wanted! Needed! Important! Extraordinary! All that, and badass guns to play with too? Where's the downside?!

Naturally, this isn't the first movie to indulge in such infantile posturing (the line starts behind every Stallone/Schwarzenegger flick of the 1980s). And in the middle of June, it's asinine to expect it to think about anything more than blowing things up real good. Director Timur Bekmambetov cut his teeth on the two Nightwatch films, which became a sensation in his native Russia. Wanted benefits immeasurably from his bottomless imagination, using camera tricks and post-production effects to push his films into a state of crack-addled mania. Everything about Wanted goes to 11. It has no more interest in obeying the laws of physics than your average Road Runner cartoon, with cars performing preposterous acts of balletic grace, kill shots fired from the next time zone, and an inspired riff on the climax from Temple of Doom using a passenger train instead of a rope bridge.

If the inherent ridiculousness of all that doesn't bother you, Wanted is an absolute hoot. Gratuitous bloodshed abounds, but that's part of the appeal to a certain extent, and the ingenious acrobatics on display are guaranteed to raise more than a few misanthropic cackles. McAvoy scores points by playing Gibson as a bigger asshole than most actors would, reducing his sympathetic qualities while making him considerably more interesting to watch. But the real trump card is Jolie -- clear heir to Schwarzenegger's human action figure mantle, who can sell this stuff solely by her presence. If anybody else knocked someone into the passenger seat of their sports car by executing a perfect bootlegger reverse and then flooring it without so much as twitching, we'd likely cry foul. But when Jolie does it -- gazing demurely at us like we're some kind of fascinating new chew toy -- we're inclined to swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

Only when you dig through Wanted's various bells and whistles does the trouble arise... and strictly speaking it's not really trouble. But every now and then, the screenplay touches on deeper issues, and the questions they raise make it harder to ignore the film's more bothersome themes. Killing people is cool, it says in no uncertain terms. It's fun, it's exciting, and if you can do it with as much style as the characters here do, then you're justified in behaving any way you damn well please. It couches that in terms of seizing control over your life -- of refusing to exist in fear or ennui when you can accomplish so much more -- but the larger implications become more troubling the longer the film allows them to percolate.

It's compounded by the fact that Wanted plays some very interesting games with the Fraternity's overall purpose. They subtly shape history by killing specific people at specific times. A giant weaver's loom plugged into some unknown cosmic power delivers the names of those who should die -- each one responsible in some indefinable way for making the world a more horrible place. The Fraternity doesn't know what kind of people their targets are or how they may contribute to the planet's misery. They simply take it on faith that killing them is in humanity's best interests. The ramifications of that -- and what happens when the system doesn't behave to the Fraternity's liking -- form the crux of the film's final third. In the process, it allows these comic book cutouts to take on more depth than perhaps we might have expected... and yet also reminds us that Wanted still treats their lifestyle as supremely enviable.

As I said at the beginning, that's probably too much to pin on any movie of this type, especially during these sun-scorched days of popcorn inanity. Wanted never pretends to be anything other than it is, and those who may be troubled by its content need no further prompting to stay away. For the rest of us, it's a grade-A guilty pleasure, and as long as you check your ethics at the door, there's nothing wrong with reveling in its skillful brand of sociopathic mayhem. Just be sure to note the bad with the good, and understand that this funhouse is constructed around a fairly rotten core. At one point, Gibson looks at the camera and asks, "What the fuck have you done lately?" Well tiger, most of us haven't killed anyone... and I don't think Wanted quite understands why that makes us better than you.

Review published 07.07.2008.

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