James MacAvoy is Wesley Gibson, total loser, whose life is changed when he meets Angelina Jolie (Fox) in a drugstore. She tells him that a) his dad was a famous assassin b) his dad is dead and c) the man who killed him is standing over there in the cereal aisle with a gun. Then there is a big shootout with guns and explosions, and a car chase where Angelina drives a fast and sexy car with her feet while shooting out of the sunroof.
That’s pretty much the tone of the film. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s previous films were the Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, and now Hollywood has let him loose with a larger budget and an R-rating to see what he can do. The result is a film which, while I am dubious about some of the morality and misogynistic overtones, can’t help but sweep me along with overblown stunts and serious violence.
Wesley’s life is changed by his meeting with the Fraternity of Assassins, where he discovers his panic attacks, which he takes as yet another sign of his loserdom, are actually an indication of his incredible reflexes and shooting ability. Guns as martial arts is not a new idea, but here it’s taken to extremes, with the assassins able to bend bullets, shoot other bullets out of the air, and generally ignore the laws of physics.
Once he’s over the initial shock of meeting a society of trained killers, Wesley tells his boss to fuck off, smacks his friend in the face with a keyboard, and takes this opportunity to become a man and learn how to kill people. This undercurrent of machismo runs through the whole film. Wesley isn’t just taking control of his life, he’s becoming a man, a lone wolf, fulfilling his destiny. To become an assassin first involves getting punched in the face a lot by Marc Warren until he admits he doesn’t know who he really is, then realising that what he wants is to follow in his father’s footsteps. (Not that this method of training is portrayed as a universal good, as it’s implied that it sent at least one of the Fraternity insane.)
Now we need a rationale so that we can have the main character go around shooting people in the head and not think he’s an amoral murderous dick, and it comes in the form of the Loom of Fate, which spits out the names of people who need to die. Yes, they may murder people in cold blood, but they do it because the loom tells them we’ll be better off for it. It’s taking one life to save one thousand, a message hammered home by the story Fox tells of a child who watched her father die when the Fraternity failed to kill the murderer in time, and in case you weren’t paying attention they spell it out to you that she’s talking about herself. All the targets of assassination are businessmen in suits and limos, often smoking cigars, and it’s a surprise when they don’t start cackling and stroking their cats.
Criticising Wanted for lacking in subtlety is probably missing the point. Shortly after that scene, we have a stunt where Wesley performs an assassination by getting his car to fly through the air and shooting his target through the sunroof, and there’s a certain joy in watching them stage preposterous stunts with the only possible reasoning being “because it will look cool”. Bekmambetov has a familiar style from his earlier work, filled with slow-motion and quick cutting, and there are some really spectacular scenes in Wanted – a train derailment, Wesley on a roaring rampage of revenge, the car chase early on. On the level of brainless gosh-wow action, it’s a good film.
And yet I can’t help but poke at the problems with it. There are parallels between the character of Anton from Night Watch and Wesley Gibson – both are nerdy loser-types and not your typical action leading man despite MacAvoy’s newfound six-pack, who discover they have supernatural skills and get involved with a mysterious organisation with shadowy leadership. But while Anton is sympathetic when caught up in the plans of others, it’s hard to feel any real sympathy for Wesley and what little there is comes from James MacAvoy’s convincing fear as he gets brought into the Fraternity. It’s all so very masculine, and out of the three female characters, one is Wesley’s fat tyrant of a boss, and one is his cheating harridan of a girlfriend, with Jolie’s Fox as the only female assassin we ever seen, sharing a curiously sexless kiss with Wesley only to piss off his ex.
The other problem is that the plot twists are not so much twists as gentle turns you can see coming from quite a long way off, and that includes the ending. Again, though, you don’t go and see Wanted for the plot, and you don’t watch it for the characterization or the acting. You watch this film if you want to see exploding rats, cars driven into trains, and a man shooting people while his gun is embedded in someone else’s brains, and it turns out that sometimes that is what I want to watch even if it leaves a faintly nasty taste in the mouth.