A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 110 mins.

Wesley Gibson: James McAvoy / Fox: Angelina Jolie / Sloane: Morgan Freeman / Pekwarsky: Terence Stamp / Cross: Thomas Kretschmann / The Gunsmith: Common / Cathy: Kristen Hager

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov / Written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan / Based on the comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones

New York Comic-Con limited edition poster for Universal Pictures' WantedWANTED is the kind of film that has the sheer tenacity and endless bravado to look improbability in the face and forcefully give it the finger.   This new action thriller has to be one of the most preposterously silly films I’ve seen, but it’s also more preposterously entertaining than just about anything this summer.   The film is a one, gigantic tsunami of pulp fiction-comic book inspired trash, but cinematic trash has rarely been such a jovial, fun-filled, and wickedly giddy hyperactive rush as this film showcases.  WANTED is a Super Big Gulp sized ode to wanton violence and bloodshed that operates almost ostensibly on primordial impulses:  This is a vehicle to wow and excite, and the film delivers with an unapologetic dynamism and fierce creativity. 

In the genre of “Cinema of Incredulity”, WANTED is clearly in a class all by itself.  This new genre - as coined by my friend and fellow moviegoer, Steve Barss - includes films that “exist for us to take in all of their highly improbable sights and engage excitedly in them without questioning their cadence.”  Films that adhere to this formula, like the two TRANSPORTER films and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, had me staring at the screen in sheer disbelief at the limitlessly implausibility of their action scenes.  The key here, though, is that if you are a nitpicker of realism in action films and stridently want them to adhere to the laws of gravity and physics, then you need to stop at the theatre exit before entering at the risk of intensely disappointing yourself.   

WANTED, no doubt, may have you scratching your head – but with a sly grin on your face and a lot of admiration – for just how well tailored it is at being “an incredibly romp of complete and utter incredulity.” 

At the helm to quarterback all of this sadistic mayhem and rousing, blood drenched spectacle is a director that will surely gain comparisons to the Wachowski Brothers, Timur Bekmambetov.  He is a Kazakhstan-born filmmaker that has developed an incredibly loyal following in his nation for films like NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH (unseen by me) that have emerged as hugely profitable.  He sank his teeth earlier in his career in advertising and then, like many in the field, made the transition to features.  Bekmambetov’s boisterous aesthetic ingenuity and breathtakingly composed compositions – which are a hybrid of John Pechinpah, John Woo, David Fincher, and the Wachowskis - is such an unyielding assault on the senses that it’s really difficult not to respect this man’s never-wavering drive to go for broke and try just about anything to deliver thrills.  Considering the relative staleness of the action genre, I absolutely love it when a new filmmaking voice comes along and takes huge gambles by showing me something different, by imagining the unimaginable, and by going to the extreme by visualizing the unthinkable.  On those levels, WANTED is a relentlessly imaginative vision.  Just don’t think too hard while viewing it…it wrecks the shock and awe factor. 

The film is yet another comic book summer film, but this is decidedly more under-the-radar.  This is not another dime-a-dozen origin film about spandex clad protagonists.  The film is loosely based on the original 2003-2004 six-issue comic book mini-series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, which featured an amoral protagonist that comes to the realization that he is actually the heir to a career as a super-villainous skilled assassin.  The books’ stories heavily resembled THE MATRIX (both involve a down-on-his-luck white collar nobody that is whisked away into a fantastical world marred with violence and intrigue).  The WANTED comics were almost unwaveringly malicious and nihilistic (it’s hero, unlike typical comic justice seekers, uses his newfound abilities to inflict violence simply for the sake of giving into his own greedy, selfish impulses), and Bekmambetov basically maintains that vibe in the film version.  The WANTED film version keeps the comics’ characters, names, and basic plot outline to appease purists, but it also makes calculated – and necessary – changes and omissions (the super hero costumes that the books’ personas wore, for example, are all but excluded here in the film). 

Despite the film’s rampant stylistic flourishes and hyperactive creativity, it still nonetheless tells a very decent origin story and, most surprisingly, allows real investment in the main character.  The story spans a millennia and we are given very brief exposition (in the form of a few images and title cards) that there’s a thousand year old clan called The Fraternity that are incredibly trained and resilient assassins.  Being a member is not easy:  one has to showcase an almost innate, superhuman ability to kill.  In the present we meet up with a Neo-in-the-waiting named Wesley Gibson (played in a thanklessly solid and emotionally textured performance by James McAvoy, refreshingly playing a hot-headed American slacker after his brooding and somber work as a Brit in ATONEMENT).  Wesley’s life sucks:  He’s a mild-mannered accounts manager that is always just a few seconds away from a violent anxiety attack.  He hates the inanity and mundane discourse of his flavorless job, his female boss is a unmitigated b-i-t-c-h in heels that is a foul mouthed brute, his shabby apartment is right by an obnoxiously loud elevated train, and his emotionally abusive girlfriend is cheating on him – several times a day – with his best buddy. 

Alas, Morpheus-esque fate appears in the form of the mysterious Fox (an unusually pale skinned and anorexic-looking Angelina Jolie, who still nevertheless manages to ooze sinful appeal while simultaneously playing a sex object and total badass).  Wesley and Fox have the most violent meet cute in the history of movies.  She meets him at a drug store where he gets his daily fix of anti-anxiety meds when she tells him that he is actually the son of a very famous and skilled Fraternity member and he has inherited all of his wealth and…abilities.  Wesley, of course, does not believe her (he was raised thinking that his dad abandoned him as an infant), but his father was around…at least until he was murdered by a renegade Fraternity member, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann).  Cross actually shows up at the drug store and a spectacularly realized (the first of the film’s many) gun fight erupts, which spills out into the parking lot and morphs into a virtuoso car chase in the streets.  It also involves one of the niftiest ways to get a person in a car without stopping it.  Insanely impossible?  Yes, but ridiculously inspired. 

Anyhoo’, Fox brings Wesley to a secret Fraternity headquarters where he meets its boss, Sloane (Morgan Freeman, naturally commanding here).  They eventually convince him to give up his past life to train in the deadly assassin arts, which involves a training regiment that I think Rocky Balboa could not endure.  Predictably, Wesley becomes an incredibly lethal killer, thanks largely to Fox’s unusually harsh methods, which culminates with him learning how to curve bullets around any obstruction to hit his targets (physics and gravity are absent in this universe…again…one's brain should not enter the theatre with one’s body).  But before William can avenge his dad’s death, he must undertake a series of starter-kills, which are picked by the Loom of Fate, a giant textile machine that creates patterns that – if one looks very, very closely to its patterns – shows a code that reveals the Fraternity’s next target.  Eventually, Wesley becomes so skilled that he soon discovers some real holes in the legitimacy of his newfound career choice. 

On a story level, WANTED does a remarkably assured job of providing a lot of exposition without feeling like it’s given a lot of exposition.  The origin story has a quick pacing without feeling rushed and it even manages to forge an acerbic black comedy in the midst of all of its later brutality.  The story itself – especially if you’re unfamiliar to the comics – has some nifty plot twists that seem a bit preordained, but do keep the momentum at a high.  The performances are also consistently strong.  Freeman is, of course, so quietly potent here, and a cameo by the great Terrance Stamp late in the film is well handled.  Jolie can play eroticized vixens better than any actress, and she excels here, but the real treat and surprise of WANTED is the very credible performance given by McAvoy as his nerd-turned-vigilante/hitman hero.  By wisely avoiding the pratfall of playing his character as large and broad as the film’s visuals, McAvoy gives a sincerely grounded performance, which gives the sheer outlandishness of WANTED a rooting resonance with viewers.  

Of course, the real star of the film is Bekmambetov’s style, and his fingerprints are all over this film’s raucous, insatiably  lively, and simply mesmerizing symphony of orgasmic gunplay and fisticuffs.  If you convince yourself to languish in ridiculing the film’s absurdly asinine premise alongside its genuine disdain for logic and credulity, then WANTED will be a wasted 110 minutes.  For all others that want to witness what has to be the most ingeniously crafted and staged gun battles since the landmark bullet-time showstoppers of THE MATRIX, then the film will be a euphoric blessing.  WANTED is insidiously barbaric, but its sadistic superfluities are made all-the-more endurable by the unbounded and remarkable visual flair and invention of its director.  

Many largely perfunctory action sequences in the film showcase Bekmambetov’s cleverness and willingness to try anything to make age-old and tired sequences look fresh and new.  Look at one scene where a character runs out of a skyscraper’s window (we see the shot from the inside-out, right to the point where the glass makes contact with the body and we see thousands of minute shards of glass shatter into a chaotic mosaic).  Then there are endless scenes of innovation with care chases (the speeding vehicles here turn, bog, weave, jump, and summersault in ways Henry Ford never dreamt possible) and several gun battles are like amazingly sustained ballets of bullets and blood.  Bekmambetov has clearly been influenced by THE MATRIX, but his bullet-time-like effects here go even further: Sometimes he pauses the bullet's P.O.V. shot mid-way, reverts time, follows the trajectory back to the shooter, and then back again.   WANTED, on these pure levels, is unyieldingly enjoyable and rousing for its over-the-top gusto and Bekmambetov’s bravura execution of scenes that, in previous weaker hands, have bored me to dearth in countless other tired action films.  On a level of awe and wonder alongside a facetious tone, WANTED revels in being audaciously different…and that’s to it’s credit. 

The film also is ultimately a grin-inducing fantasy.  Cold-hearted cynics may find entering this world difficult.  Yet, WANTED is an auctioneer of such untamed, valiant, and eccentrically uncanny imagination:  It uses state of the art visuals and effects, sleek and sexy cars, rampant gore and carnage, vividly exciting chases and gun battles, offbeat and appealing characters, and a willingness to slap pragmatism in the face.  This is a consummately assembled hybrid of sci-fi, fantasy, action, comedy, and super hero motifs that may be deliciously lewd and sleazy, but it all gloriously holds up as the ultimate mid-year guilty pleasure.  Very much like 2006's very underrated RUNNING SCARED, WANTED is unreservedly soulless trash, but it's so satisfyingly original and well-orchestrated as a stylish and uncompromisingly visceral thrill ride.

And it’s one of the best films involving instances of “complete and utter incredulity” that I’ve laid eyes on.  By a long shot.  

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