When Wanted was announced as the opening night film for the Los Angeles Film Festival, there was a mild outbreak of head-scratching over the choice; why start a film festival loaded with independent and foreign film with a big-studio action movie? The fact is that the opening-night LAFF premiere of Wanted -- directed by a Kazakh director who made his name in Russia, loosely based on a series of comics by a Glasgwegian Scot, starring America's most notable movie starlet opposite a Glasgow-born lead actor and shot with Prague standing in for Chicago -- doesn't say much about the LAFF as a film festival and doesn't say a single thing about L.A. as a real city, but it says plenty about L.A. as a company town with a global span. Wanted's a corporate product, but, thankfully, it's an excellent one -- the two-fisted, double-barreled high-octane guilty pleasure summer action movie you've been waiting for. Wanted is speedy and spiffy and shiny as a bullet, and it's got about as much actual weight when it stops moving.
Wanted opens with bloody murder -- an assassin assassinated. There's a secret society of killers known as The Fraternity, who kill based on the prophecies of a mystic whatsit called The Loom of Fate, a clattering apparatus that spits out the names of targets encoded in the warp and woof of the cloth it makes. The Fraternity's always been convinced that the targets are deserving victims, named so that the balance of the universe might be maintained by the deaths The Loom commands -- "Kill one, save a thousand" -- but there's some bad blood, and bloodshed, between the Fraternity and its former top assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), who seems to have some quibbles with the status quo and is running through his objections, with the bullet points of his argument actually being bullets.
Wesley (James McAvoy) is a cube-dwelling drone whose life is a mix of Office Space, Fight Club and some unknown circle of hell with fluorescent lighting. Crippled by self-loathing and panic attacks, Wesley is found and swept away by Fox (Angelina Jolie), who explains to Wesley that he's got a secret link to The Fraternity, and that makes him a target. The only way for Wesley to live is for him to kill the person who wants him dead, who also killed the father Wesley never knew. Wesley wants no part of this, even after being told he's heir to some traits that had made his father, a king among killers, so fearsome. His panic attacks? Turns out they're the unfocused manifestation of a hyperspeed heartbeat that can be focused in the name of lethal accuracy and inhuman clarity. Soon, Wesley is willingly, gladly embracing his new life and new friends and new talents. ...
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov of the Night Watch series, Wanted is full of hey-ma-lookit-me! goofy, giddy directorial touches. We see so many scenes from the bullet's point of view that I swear I had the taste of gunpowder in my mouth by the end of the film. Screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan wisely peel away from Mark Millar's original comic books early on and ditch his meditations on costumed super villainy so they might focus on plainclothes action; when Wesley goes from paper-pusher to death-dealer (and McAvoy goes from indie actor to action star), we're invited along for the ride. And yes, Wanted is a juvenile power fantasy -- You're plucked from your pedestrian life and thrust into a world of intrigue with a hot tattooed movie star as your mentor and partner -- but it is also, at the least, a superbly executed one.
And you can mock Angelina Jolie all you want (indeed, you could argue that the people behind Wanted's marketing art, some of which Photoshops Jolie's head atop a freakishly attenuated and elongated set of tattooed limbs, already have), but let it be said that she's very good here. At one point, held at gunpoint by the trembling, terrified Wesley, Fox looks on bemused and enthused by his pluck in the face of long odds, and you realize that for all of her tabloid turmoil and aspirations of secular sainthood, Jolie's first and foremost and undeniably a movie star. As Sloan, the head of The Fraternity, a mastermind who may be reading The Loom's threads or simply pulling all the strings, Morgan Freeman fulfills and flips his usual role as the intoner of all knowledge. And McAvoy goes from crushed soul to avenging angel with grace and no small amount of good humor.
Bekmambetov's rise through the ranks included a brief stint working for Roger Corman, where he says he learned "how to make a hundred dollars look like a thousand ... and if you have a hundred million, you have to make them look like five hundred million." And he does that here, with such crewmembers as production designer John Mhyre (X-Men, Chicago), who gives the film's look a mix of post-modern and post-medieval influences, and cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, who's held second-unit positions on films from The Island to Shine a Light, and here controls Wanted's cameras with assurance and power.
Wanted isn't groundbreaking or innovative, but it is skillful and willful with the courage of its own convictions, and how many modern action films can you truly say that of? Wanted is phony and majestic; the curving bullets and death-defying leaps bend the laws of physics firmly and fiercely, and the hipster anti-authoritarian poses it strikes are as shallow as they are calculated. Now and then, the shiny wrapping is the present, and that's the case here.
Wanted's a film made of other films, a perfect piece of product; it's got a big, broad cast to ensure worldwide bankability, and there's less dialogue than there is the universal language of kiss kiss bang bang. In fact, with Jolie's sex appeal only employed in a few scenes (and nicely balanced with beefcake shots of McAvoy's action abs), Wanted mostly bypasses kiss kiss bang bang in favor of bang bang bang bang. Wanted is hardly a lasting summertime moviegoing experience -- I think I've had sunburns this year that lingered with me longer -- but, like the summer itself, it's a pleasure whose brevity and transience aren't damaging flaws but instead essential components.