Wanted is like a bratty, emotionally stunted, proudly foul-mouthed middle-schooler who picks up a violin and turns into Midori. Its narrative is Fight Club retold by someone who failed to register any of that movie’s nuances. But its action sequences, courtesy of director Timur Bekmambetov, are the best of the summer so far. Bekmambetov tosses aside the laws of physics to create mayhem that’s clever and perversely beautiful. Whether that’s worth sitting through a tale told by a sniveling sociopath and apparently aimed at his peers is your call.
In Fight Club, Edward Norton played a white-collar drone who knew he was complicit in his own dissatisfaction: He was addicted to his paychecks and the IKEA baubles they bought. Not so with Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), who, like Norton’s character, narrates his story in voiceover. This cubicle slave has spent his life being a whipping boy, and his abusers are cartoonish monsters: a fat female boss whose bitching is as loud as the patterns on her clothes; a slutty girlfriend who’s bedding his best friend; and a friend who flaunts it by waving the condoms in his face. He’s even deprived the usual benefits of a soulless job, as he’s in debt and lives in a scummy apartment with the El train passing feet from his window. The script suggests that Wesley’s only complicity in this situation lies in being too much of a “pussy” to smack his oppressors back down where they belong.
Luckily for him, he hooks up with a group of super-powered assassins who can abuse him on a whole new level. One instant Wesley’s at the corner store; the next, he’s speeding through the streets with a skeletal Angelina Jolie perched on his hood so she can blow away bad guys. After that little adrenaline binge, Fox yes, that’s Jolie’s character takes Wesley to a vast Victorian-gothic textile factory for a spate of exposition. From a dignified gentleman named Sloan (Morgan Freeman), our hero learns that his father, who deserted him at birth, belonged to a secret Fraternity of weavers with roots in the Middle Ages and a mission to kill evil-doers. Now Dad has been struck down by a rogue Fraternity member, leaving Wes to bear his legacy.
Much nastiness, coolness and stupidity follow. The nastiness is in the Fraternity’s training of Wesley, which takes the film to levels of gory masochism seldom seen outside the horror genre. The coolness kicks in when the office worker discovers that his “panic attacks” are actually symptoms of a congenital ability to shift into a sensory mode where the world appears to be moving in slo-mo, making it easy to zoom in on and shoot at minute details.
As it happens, that’s also the mode in which Bekmambetov likes to present his action sequences. “Bullet time” a nifty computer trick in which people or objects appear to move at molasses speed while the camera keeps zipping around goes back to The Matrix. But the Kazakh director, who also made the hyper-kinetic Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, takes Wesley’s gift as a pretext to go to town with the effect. His techniques mix the raw excitement of watching big things go smash with a dreamy, godlike sense of omniscience: No matter how fast the action moves, we stand at the eye of the storm, always seeing the parts that matter.
It’s an illusion, of course a narcissistic fantasy, like most of the movie. Its stupid element comes to the fore when Wesley learns more about the Fraternity. (Something called the “Cloth of Fate” is involved.) Awkward twists toward the end don’t improve matters, as the scriptwriters try to backtrack from the gleeful amorality of their source material. In Mark Millar’s 2004 Wanted comics, the Fraternity is a league of victorious, unrepentant super-villains, and the story ends with Wesley turning to the readers and calling them his bitches only in rather cruder terms. The film emasculates that final insult, but its message is the same: If you want to live inside this world for a couple of hours, embrace the fantasy and check your self-respect at the door.