There’s nothing like good unclean cinematic fun some times, and Wanted has that in spades. In fact it violently beats you over the head with those spades of fun and then shoots you in the face with a joy bullet from around a corner.
Directed by Russia’s leading action director, Kazakh Timur Bekmambetov, making his Hollywood debut after the visually fascinating though overly complex Night Watch and Day Watch. What those two films certainly had was a truly unpretentious sense of style, an awareness that what was being made was meant to be first-and-foremost fun, art second (or maybe third of fourth, who knows?).
Based loosely on the comics by Mark Millar, Wanted is the tale of an office slave destined to be an ultra-assassin due to his very absent father’s blood. The cowardly and socially disconnected Wesley Gibson, played by increasingly popular Scot James McAvoy, believes that the first flutterings of his natural talents are no more than health issues and anxiety attacks, unaware that his high blood pressure can trigger an adrenaline rush with the potential to make him half Neo from The Matrix, half Crank.
He is swiftly indoctrinated into the ways of the Fraternity, a guild of super assassins with high pain thresholds, knife mastery and the ability to curve the trajectories of bullets – it makes more sense if you try not to think about it. Wesley is trained as one of them and quickly becomes an elite assassin, and is thus sent to kill the man who betrayed the Fraternity and killed his father. But is all as simple as it seems?
Well who cares?! We know better than to analyse the plot of a film whose central construct is an all-powerful loom (yes, a loom. That kind of loom) that requests the deaths of the guilty in English, despite having been built in Eastern Europe circa 900.
This is just a madcap thrill-ride par excellence that manages to be more fun than any of the superhero movies or Will Ferrell comedies of the past few years. Eighteenth century pistols get fired as men jump across buildings. A car flips through the air, crashes into a bus (which falls over on its side), and then drives off the side of it. Rats squeak inquisitively before exploding. There is no sense, there is only violent comedy.
And violent it is. Audiences having forgotten gore due to PG-13 Die Hard films and having been desensitised to it by torture porn may have forgotten just how fun an action film is when stupidly gory things happen (and in colour – I’m looking at you Sin City). But this is old school 1989-style violence, not suitable for children, only suitable to adults with a dark sense of humour. If you don’t find something funny about using a man’s shot out eye cavity as a targeting reticule (allowing his body to double as a human shield), then get you to another film.
The action sequences are truly superb, particularly the first car chase and a battle onboard a train that has undoubtedly the highest death toll of innocent bystanders since 9/11 made it no longer ok for Hollywood films to kill off civilians. The final action spectacle, which amounts to a good 15 minutes or so, is everything that popular oddity Equilibrium wanted from its action scenes and more; lots of running and jumping, weapons get reloaded at speed, stolen, turned upside down. This film will be a bestseller on DVD as every male between 15 and 35 will need a copy to accompany spontaneous beer nights.
Speaking of male interests, Angelina Jolie does look rather scrumptious here as assassin Fox (it’s all in the name). For an actress with an Oscar happily stashed under her belt it is strange how it is action films that she always seems to excel in. Here she brings that same S&M style lust for fun that she brought to her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton. A brief glimpse of her ass as she emerges from a bath (actually hers or a body double’s? Who cares, it’s lovely), reminds one of the days that were before The Matrix revealed it was possible to have a good action film without a flashing of nipples.
One thing that makes Wanted quite special is Morgan Freeman’s performance as Sloan, the Fraternity’s commander-in-chief. Mysterious and slightly mischievous, he delivers absurd lines of dialogue such as “curve the bullet” and “shoot the wings off the flies” with so much conviction that you momentarily accept that these are perfectly logical requests. Indeed, he says the word “mother-fucker” with more potency than Samuel L Jackson has ever managed.
Supporting players are only modestly effective. Chris Pratt is a good choice as Wesley’s uber-obnoxious yuppie best friend. Terence Stamp does his best Malcolm McDowell impression but it only partially pays off. Thomas Kretschmann, the captain from King Kong, once again plays a character we would like to learn more about but don’t. Konstantin Khabensky, whose sole function it seems is to foreshadow, appears to have been included because he’s mates with the director, whether it works or not.
As for McAvoy, though an atypical action star and uttering a questionable American accent, manages to play both beaten-down loser and unstoppable havoc-monger believably in the same two-hour period.
This is good preposterous fun from start to finish, and is in fact cleverer than most other recent action films. As a comic adaptation it has a tendency to over-rely on tedious narration, though not quite like a Frank Miller story. Leaving your brain at the door will help you to ignore the ludicrous physics on display (the final action scene, as a friend put it, would require the use of an elephant gun and a very small black hole) and just enjoy a laugh-out-loud romp.
At the very least, Wanted features the finest use of an ergonomic keyboard anyone will ever likely find. Although I still say it’s not a very good title.