The latest brawny, slick, slow-motion-fed shoot-'em-up to air-quote reinvent the action genre, Wanted is a hyper-stylized swirl of color, outlandish gunplay, acrobatic escape sequences and punishing sound design. It will titillate and enthuse a young, rabid (and overwhelmingly male) fan base for the summer, doing big box office business and leaving a deep international footprint. And then, like The Big Hit or Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or Aeon Flux, it will disappear with a gentle plunk!, to be not much thought about outside of its fan-boy base until it pops up on cable television some drizzly evening 10 years hence.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian filmmaker behind Night Watch and its 2006 follow-up, Day Watch, the highest-grossing native movie of all time in his homeland, Wanted is based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. Filmed in Prague against a panoply of architectural styles, the movie centers around Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), an accountant who leads a droning office existence (a la Office Space, and The Matrix), and is so non-confrontational that he can't even bring himself to dump his girlfriend, a harridan who's cheating on him with his equally insincere and duplicitous best friend.
Wesley's life gets turned upside down when hit-woman Fox (Angelina Jolie) crashes into him on the business end of a smoking gun, and informs Wes that his presumed long-dead father was actually an elite-level killer just recently cut down by the vengeful Cross (Thomas Kretschmann). Escaping a rubout from the latter, Fox whisks Wes away and introduces him to the not-very-originally-named Fraternity, a secret, thousand-year-old sect of assassins derived from... weavers? Yes, honestly. Leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) then explains that they “keep the order and balance” by bumping off individuals whose names are spit out from a loom, encoded in binary form by whether certain strands lay above or below other stitching. (Seriously, one can't make this stuff up.) Drawn into the Fraternity, Wes learns to slow down and focus the 400-heartbeats-per-minute panic attacks that besiege him, all as he trains to seek revenge against Cross.
As shot by Transformers cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, Wanted is an anthology of eye-popping steeplechases and nutso special effects, with characters leaping across city streets and flipping cars to fire guns down through the top of open sunroofs. It's extreme and willfully over-the-top, in other words. It's also very well put together, powered by special effects from Bekmambetov's own visual effects house in Moscow. Several of the action scenes (Fox scooping up Wes in a red Viper, saving him from Cross; a train-set sequence which concludes in crashing fashion on a bridge between two steep cliffs) get the blood pumping. There are also cool visual conceits — like a waxy rejuvenation chamber which heals bruises, cuts and apparently bullet and knife wounds as well — and an exacting sense of each of the main characters' presentations. “Toil” and “Tears” read the tattoos on the insides of Fox's arms, accompanied by a string of ones and zeroes on her left wrist, presumably the code for some long-past target of special importance.
The problem is a matter of rootedness. Wanted aims to position itself as an outrageous slice of aspirant pop-cinema, about the transformation of a “nobody” into an unparalleled enforcer of justice; indeed, part of the direct-address marketing campaign touts the fact that “six weeks ago I was just like you.” The inspirations for the source material, and its cinematic translation, are fairly obvious, from Star Wars to The Matrix and Fight Club. A bigger part of the problem, though, is that the movie never convincingly sells us on its tone, and setting. Keanu Reeves' transformation into Neo in The Matrix worked because of the differentiation established between two worlds. Here, everything is angled, and “extreme,” right down to Wes' obese, grotesque boss (Lorna Scott), who could be something out of a Tim Burton film, or maybe even a Dr. Seuss book.
Centuries of presumed Fraternity customs, traditions, codes and the like are boiled down to vague directives (“Like an apostle, your task is not to interpret, but deliver”) and even vaguer overall motivations, and Bekmambetov can't stop himself from pitching things at an ironic angle. Bits like the rejuvenation chamber, meanwhile, notwithstanding their visual appeal, render wholly irrelevant large chunks of the action. The movie also ends on a needlessly nasty and condescending note, with a direct-address dismissal of its core viewership.
Wanted isn't lastingly odious or offensive — in its own warped way, it's perfectly serviceable for what it is — but it is emblematic of what I like to think of as Cinema of the Now, which is to say films that answer to no greater sense or discipline than what works in the moment. Entertainment like that can wash over one pleasantly at times, but it isn't ever a cleansing rain. Nor a particularly memorable one. (Universal, R, 108 minutes)