Friday, July 11, 2008
Slick and Shiny...and that's about all
There is true punk rock and then there is poser punk rock. Wanted is a souped-up poser; it knows the attitude but not the music. There is lots of cursing, plenty of bloodshed, and a lot of ironic voice-over to lull the audience (and apparently many major film critics) into buying the film’s cheap brand of iron-archy. But to probe even one inch into the film’s content, one will find a lot of empty hatred aimed simultaneously at everything and nothing; it’s like the filmmakers just like the idea of being hipster assholes.
Wanted is actually pretty audacious: never have I seen one film so blatantly lift from both Fight Club and The Matrix while posing smugly as if it created something fresh and new. Credit for that should go, I suppose, to director Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian-Kazakh import who specializes in hyper-violent gore-fests and slick gratuity. Perhaps we can be thankful that he didn’t completely humiliate the participants in the film’s few energetic sex scenes, but on the other hand, sex doesn’t seem to be Bekmambetov’s preferred brand of porn…ultra cool slashings, gunfights, and beat-downs are.
Atonement golden boy James McAvoy stars in the Keanu-Norton role, playing Wesley, who suffers from frequent panic attacks, hates his Office Space-esque desk job, has no money in the bank, has a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his best friend, and who can barely stand to get up in the morning. Wesley narrates the film with a heightened sense of irony, as if he is fully aware the audience is listening. I prefer the cold detachment of Edward Norton’s Fight Club narration, which this film is clearly chasing in the wind, but while Wanted can muster the same four-letter words, it can’t come close to matching the meaning behind them.
Wesley is mysteriously recruited by a secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, which is led—as all secret assassin societies should be—by a grizzled Morgan Freeman, who stands on the sidelines—or more to the point, in the shadowy corners—and lets his elite team do the dirty work. The elite team is headed—as all elite teams should be—by Angelina Jolie, but she is not in Lara Croft/Mrs. Smith mode here; she is instead so emaciated that it seems one kick in the gut would break her in half (lucky that never happens to her during the film). Strangely, Jolie is relegated to a pretty small supporting role in favor of McAvoy, whose Wesley whines and screams his way through the film’s first few action sequences before undergoing the inevitable Transformation Into Gun-Slinging God. The training sequences go on forever and get bloodier as they go—this section also starts the film on its more serious “hero origin story” path, which does not coalesce with the smug jokiness of the film’s first half and which only serves to prolong the boring hyper-violence of the film’s last half.
McAvoy is a good actor and he is pretty good here, almost in spite of his mildly annoying character. Freeman has some fun spinning his usual gravitas with some barbed toughness…and he doesn’t chew as much scenery as one might imagine (though that might have been pretty fun, too). Jolie is basically wasted—I think she speaks about 20 words throughout the entire film. I’m not sure what drew these actors to this particular material, other than the fact that slick comic book adaptations (Wanted is based on a series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones) are currently en vogue, and maybe the arrogance of the film’s winking irony appeared half-way intelligent on the page. And Bekmambetov was probably seen as a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood, after his Night Watch and Day Watch films became cult sensations for their kinetic action and remarkably gratuitous gore. But I have news for them, and for you: Night Watch wasn’t all that great, and Wanted plays on the screen like boring action-porn.