In what is only the second most outlandish, silly and unbelievable story of a film I have seen this June (see "The Happening" for top honors), Russian director Timur Bekmambetov combines strange characters, interesting visuals and over-the-top action sequences with an outlandish story to make a fun, roller coaster ride of a film.
If you have seen Bekmambetov's previous two films "Night Watch" and "Day Watch", the two most successful films in Russian film history, you will immediately see his signature style all over "Wanted", the new film starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. "Night" and "Day Watch" tell the stories of two warring factions of strange beings who wage an epic battle throughout the streets of Moscow. In these films, the director uses an extreme palette of visual techniques to show the characters' emotions, their journey and their problems, never letting the viewer's eye rest for a moment. This relentless technique lends itself well to "Wanted", his first American film. It also helps the film rise above it's preposterous story, which is, surprise, based on graphic novels, and become a fun, memorable summer film.
Ok, here we go. Bear with me.
As "Wanted" begins, a title card appears on screen explaining that over a thousand years ago, a group of weavers formed the Fraternity, bringing together highly skilled assassins to help right the wrongs of the world. Yeah, weavers. Fabric makers got together to become assassins and take out the bad guys. Laughable, I know, but bear with me. Then "Six Weeks Ago", we watch as one of these assassins is visiting a fabric merchant, trying to find out who made a bullet he holds in his hand. He soon realizes she is about to be killed and jumps from the building of her death to the next building where the assassins are. Soon, everyone is dead and we watch the bullet that killed the assassin travel back to Cross' (Thomas Kretschmann) gun, many miles away. We meet Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a sad sack accountant stuck in a dreadful job with a cheating girlfriend and a terrible apartment. The only way Wesley is able to cope is by taking a lot of medicine he can barely afford. One night at the pharmacy, a beautiful woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie) approaches him and tells him his father was killed yesterday, that he was a highly skilled assassin and that his killer is standing behind Wesley. Thus begins a roller coaster ride, as Wesley has to accept that he could join the fraternity and become an assassin as well. Apparently, the shills required to succeed in this job are genetic. He meets Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the head of the fraternity and begins his training. And abuse. When Sloan and Fox feel he is ready, Wesley receives the first name of someone he must kill. But because Wesley is the curious type, Sloan shows him the Loom of Fate, a large loom working on it's own to create a piece of fabric. Sloan uses a magnifying glass and stares at the fabric and reads the binary code in the weave to get the letters forming a person's name. This is their next target. He cuts out the swatch of fabric, staples it to a work order, signs it and hands it to Wesley. But Wesley is anxious to kill the man who killed his unknown father and when this order arrives, he and Fox are off to Europe.
Is that crickets I hear out there? Are you still with me? I know, I know. An outlandish, improbable, laughably silly story. But "Wanted" is saved by the interesting visuals and the over the top action.
As soon as we meet Wesley, we recognize him. He is one of the many apathetic individuals who struggle with life everyday. Stuck in a bad job (he narrates an office birthday party for his boss, brilliantly capturing the various nuances of office politics), with a cheating girlfriend, they live in a crappy apartment right next to subway tracks. The only way he is able to cope is by taking anti depressant medicine, which he can barely afford. So when Fox approaches him, he immediately discounts what he says, even when bullets start flying and she has to protect him from walking into the line of fire.
As we meet Wesley, Bekmambetov uses a series of techniques to really show us what is going on in his head. Using a lot of close-ups, some of which pulse to reflect his heartbeat, everything appears very close and unusual. A lot of characters look directly into the lens, showing us Wesley's POV and we get a real sense of his anxiousness. As he narrates, and tells us he knows his girlfriend is having an affair, we get a better look at his true persona. Everything about his life is not as he has imagined it, and he can't muster the energy to do anything about it, so he maintains the status quo. And endures. How many people do you know who do the same thing? Probably dozens.
Then Wesley meets Fox and the circumstances force him into this new world. After barely escaping his father's assassin, many conflicting emotions start to affect his life. He realizes the Fraternity has transferred his father's life savings, a substantial amount to his account, and this frees him from the job and his bully of a boss. Then he decides to join the Fraternity.
There is, naturally, a significant amount of training involved and also, apparently, some hazing, before he is accepted. When he has finally reached the point when Fox and Sloane believe he is ready, he is sent on his first kill, with Fox tagging along as mentor and for moral support.
The action scenes are done in an over the top fashion which makes them more interesting and gives this film, this really silly film, more interest than it has any right to have.
The trailers for the film featured the whole 'bending the bullet' thing, so I'm not ruining any surprises there. In previous reviews, I have taken issue with filmmakers and writers who set up their universe and then cheat on their own rules. What's the point? You have free reign. Make it work. Don't go to the trouble to establish the rules and then break your own rules. In "Wanted", Bekmambetov and his writers go to great lengths to make the Fraternity seem real and they do a good job making this perfectly ludicrous idea work. Part of making this work, is having the characters bend the rules. When they first start training Wesley, they are very keen for him to shoot bullets around things, to hit targets behind other objects. "What if no one ever told you a bullet travels in a straight line?" intones Sloan. It takes some time, but Wesley eventually masters this technique. And they use it a lot.
During the various action scenes, Bekmambetov uses a series of techniques to almost dissect the action, presenting it to us for our scrutiny. And it all works. Providing the viewer with a fun roller coaster ride.
McAvoy plays Wesley and it is fun to watch the actor take his character through the transformation from sad sack to lethal assassin. Wesley clearly relishes his new role, so much so he is willing to put up with a brutal and punishing hazing ritual.
Jolie plays Fox, one of the lethal assassins of the Fraternity. She is charged with training Wesley and seems to be an exacting, sometimes cruel educator. But she looks like she is having fun during the elaborate action scenes.
Morgan Freeman plays the wise sage role he should copyright. Sloan is the leader and guiding force of the Fraternity, directing it, providing it with pieces of wisdom gleamed from the Loom of Fate. A simple nod or off glance from Sloan is enough to cue the rest of the team.
Terrence Stamp pops up briefly as Pekwarsky, an enemy to the Fraternity. His role is too brief to be very consequential or villainous.
As the story barrels to its climax, there is the inevitable confrontation. It is at this point that the story begins to fall apart, the writers and director haven't tied up all of the lose strings quite so completely. But it is a slight problem and the rest of the film makes up for it.
In every film, you have to suspend your belief system and accept what the filmmakers are trying to go for. The degree with which you are able to do this will determine how much you enjoy the film. In the case of "Wanted", I was willing to accept the Loom of Fate and go along for the ride.