Director: Timur Bekmambetov ; Starring: James MacAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman ; Running Time: 110mins
Wanted, based on the Mark Millar comic series of the same name, tells the story of Wesley Gibson, a nobody in a dead-end job, and how his life changes forever when a fraternity of assassins makes contact with him and unlocks his hidden talents. With his new abilities Wesley then sets out to avenge the death of his father, a fellow assassin, who left him as a newborn.
This is the English language debut of Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, director of Night Watch and Day Watch. Wanted is a film that tries to do a great many things but ultimately fails on most counts. Its greatest achievement is its visual flair. It looks incredibly interesting; with some eye-catching contrasts in the colour palette and several ambitious and entertaining set-pieces, but Bekmambetov’s direction calls to mind that of Michael Bay. The feeling of all of the set-pieces is very, “look: bear witness to how awesome my shot is”, and all Bay ever shows us is something blowing up…for five minutes. To his credit, though, Bekmambetov does manage to inject some originality and individuality into his shots but there’s still an underlying arrogance that denies the film any charm. He has a great eye for striking images, but a film has to transcend its identity as merely a series of images placed next to one another and Wanted utterly fails to do this. I believe the director’s only interest was in having a bunch of cool, crazy stuff happen on screen, with the story viewed as something which happens in between the action, as opposed to actually leading the viewer through it. Michael Bay has a similar opinion of what’s important in a movie, but his stories are actually functional, if shallow; they do get us from A to B in a straightforward manner. Wanted has almost no narrative drive. It’s completely nonsensical and we’re given very little insight into any of the characters except Wesley and this element of the story leaves much to be desired.
Wesley’s story is one of an individual stuck in an endless cycle of boredom and self-pity. The film aims high with this element of the story (which feels completely separate to any of the action) but again falls miserably short. It seems as though the idea was to have the audience all see a little bit of themselves reflected in Wesley and through the course of the film question their submission to their own shortcomings. However, the character of Wesley just endlessly whines in James MacAvoy’s off-putting facsimile of an American accent and does nothing to endear himself to the audience at all and his dialogue during the first big action piece is incredibly grating. He has a job he hates and a girlfriend who’s cheating on him with his supposed best friend. Then he’s able to change his life because it turns out he has what is essentially a superpower and he is, by someone else’s design, trained by a group of super-assassins, which isn’t quite my idea of taking control of your own life. The film treats the subject matter with an astounding lack of respect or subtlety and sells out any message it could have about waking up and taking control by having Wesley’s awaking either “awesome” or unintentionally hilarious, depending on how you look at it. He’s incredibly mean to someone and then smacks someone else in the face with a keyboard, having the keys and one of the guy’s teeth spell an obscenity as they fly towards the screen. The victim then inexplicably thanks him for it and continues to worship him in a couple of other scenes. If the film had a more frivolous tone then they could have pulled something like this off but it tries to be serious and keeps assuming that you’ve never seen anything else like it in your life when in fact we have and we’ve seen it done better.
Wanted is remarkably derivative and never admits to being so. Wesley’s journey feels like a watered down Fight Club and Bekmambetov’s visual style often seems heavily influenced by David Fincher’s. The action sequences can feel like The Matrix and the film has scenes which seem like they want to channel Crank, but Wanted lacks this film’s pitch-perfect tone and pacing. Wanted is a patchwork, as opposed to a synthesis, of these elements and ultimately feels like a waste of time and offers nothing new. This would be okay in itself were it not for the aforementioned arrogance of the film. After failing completely to engage the or dealing with its themes in an original or insightful way the film has the audacity to literally ask the viewer what he or she has done about their life recently. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more offended by any single line in a film and the undeservedly high esteem in which Wanted holds itself is staggering. That this line is delivered at the very end of the film did not have me leaving in a particularly forgiving mood.
Once Wesley escapes his life and joins the Fraternity we’re exposed to one of the few other positive elements of the film. The mystery surrounding the group when Wesley first meets them is very good. The character design for all of the members is colourful and varied and Morgan Freeman as Sloane, the head of the Fraternity, is clearly having a good time with the role. Angelina Jolie is also well-cast as Wesley’s mysterious mentor “Fox”. Apparently Angelina Jolie cut her own character’s dialogue down dramatically, which is perhaps why the character stands out as the strongest in the film. Wesley is transformed through a lengthy training montage and the logic behind many of the tasks is non-existent. The characterisation of most of the previously mysterious members of the Fraternity is all over the place. We’re left at a complete loss as to the motives of any of them and the source of animosity between Wesley and one of the other assassins is established only in one direction. The villain in the film is also so poorly characterised that I was questioning his character long before I was meant to. The more details about the Fraternity we’re given the more ridiculous and implausible the film becomes, often to the point of distraction. The first mention of the “Loom of Fate” deservedly received a laugh in the screening I attended. By the time this line is uttered the story has spiralled into utter nonsense that you really have to just let wash over you. The movie proceeds to ply the audience with motiveless journeys and huge, asinine twists that I can’t spoil here but one of the big ones makes at least one of the previous scenes completely stupid. There’s a final plot development towards the end which could have any one of a number of causes, at least one of which is actually a fantastic idea, but it’s left completely unexplored and is used simply to set up another “breathtaking” set-piece. At a couple of points in the film characters take action which makes utterly no sense whatsoever, again to the point where you find yourself questioning the film instead of watching it and the disregard for civilian casualties in the final act is very strange.
The film never convincingly cements the world in which it’s set. At some points it seems as if it’s just a bunch of people and some impressive gunplay but it then moves to the point where the characters must have magical powers and it proves only to be jarring as the viewer attempts to deduce exactly what’s allowed in this universe. I believe the comic book is set in a world of superheroes and many of the abilities are actually considered superpowers, but that’s never made clear in the film. Wanted doesn’t know how to swear either. There’s a subtlety to the placement and delivery of swearwords required to make them sound like they’re an integrated part of the speech as opposed to something crowbarred in to make the character seem more hardcore. Wanted suffers from this almost completely and had me cringing at much of the dialogue, except at the very end where there’s a great bit of swearing as a character’s last words.
Most of the casting is solid, with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie being highlights. Although Morgan Freeman may just play himself now, he’s still extremely watchable. The secondary cast is perfectly fine as well, but James MacAvoy was quite poor. His accent was distracting and Wesley was totally unengaging. The character they seemed to be going for was a kind of unaware everyman realising his potential but they forgot to make him in any way likeable. I don’t think MacAvoy has any future as an action star.
If I step back from the film a little I can admit that some of the action scenes were quite fun and entertaining in their insanity but they’re neither ridiculous enough to reach the heights of a film like Shoot ‘Em Up nor well-executed enough to be compared favourably with other more traditional action fare. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t have taken the film so seriously, but Wanted never actually encourages that attitude to its proceedings. If you’re able to ignore, more than tolerate, everything between the action set-pieces then you’ll probably have a good time but beyond that this movie has absolutely nothing to offer.
In Brief: A vacuous, derivative and offensively arrogant film with a weak lead performance and a baffling plot made only possibly worthwhile thanks to some enjoyably over the top action set-pieces and an interesting visual style.