Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wanted / *** (R)

Wesley Gilmore: James McAvoy
Fox: Angelina Jolie
Cross: Thomas Kretschmann
Gunsmith: Common
Pekwarsky: Terence Stamp
Sloan: Morgan Freeman

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Based on the comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. Running time: 110 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality).

Last November, Stephen King wrote a column in Entertainment Weekly about what was “cool.” He claimed “cool” was one of two words in the English language that could not be modified (the other was “unique”). And he concluded that certain people, movies and music were undeniably cool. They don’t have to be good to be cool, and some things can be good without being cool. I’m sure there are some people who will argue that “Wanted” is not good, but it is so cool that it is.

Consider the coolness factor in hiring Russian director Timur Bekmambetov to helm it for his Hollywood debut. Russian cinema isn’t exactly up there with J-horror in the American movie market, but Bekmambetov made a big splash a couple of years ago with the U.S. release of his revisionist vampire movie “Night Watch” and followed it up closely with the sequel “Day Watch”. Not only are vampires the coolest of all cool movie monsters, but Bekmambetov gave his vampires a mythology and abilities like no others that came before them. His movies are a visual feast of special effects where cars can drive up vertical high rises, characters can pass between different levels of reality, and literally anything can happen.

Consider also that “Wanted” is born from the most “in” sources for movies these days—comic books. But unlike the boisterous cannon of superheroes that most comic book adaptations stem from, “Wanted” is of a much more underground nature. While Iron Man and Batman are still proving there are character depths to be explored in the superhero market, the genre is beginning to show some wear. “Wanted” comes from a less popular space in the comic book universe, where there may not be as much character to explore, but these sub-heroes do like to have fun bending the rules of reality.

Based on the series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, “Wanted” tells the story of a secret society of assassins that operates in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight between the beats of a fly’s wings that seem so brief to normal men. This league of assassins—known as The Fraternity—have honed their combat skills to the degree that they can force cars and trains to do miraculous feats, shoot bullets around corners and even shoot the wings off a fly. Not much of an explanation is offered as to how they can manipulate the laws of physics beyond freeing their minds of the limitations the world has taught them. An explanation would only muddle down the film’s plot with exposition.

The Fraternity receives their orders from a fabric loom that is said to be Divine. But something is not right with the Fraternity, as one of its best assassins is killed by another rouge agent of the order. To deal with their rogue agent The Fraternity recruits Wesley Gilmore, a seemingly untalented ordinary office worker, who proves to have an innate grasp of the Fraternity’s special skills.

Wait! Wait… wait a minute. Stop!

Did I just say they received “their orders from a fabric loom that is said to be Divine”? Yes, I did. Is that cool or just ridiculous? Well, it is undoubtedly ridiculous, but somehow it’s still cool. In fact, this movie is filled with the ridiculous and the preposterous. For instance, we witness an assassination performed from one car flipping over another with the shooter hitting his target through the sunroof as he passes over. But doesn’t that sound pretty cool too?

Is it cool that the hero is played by the quickly rising star from “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland” James McAvoy? Well, it might not seem cool to some, but it is. McAvoy is an actor that grabs your attention by being simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. He has moved rapidly toward star status by making smart script choices, and “Wanted” may be his last step toward cementing himself as a bona fide star.

Here’s something to ponder—Angelina Jolie, naked from the backside, covered in tattoos. Is there any part of that image that isn’t cool? I didn’t think so. She is also the aptly named assassin assigned to bring Wesley up to speed with his skills once he joins the Fraternity. Fox is her name, and it pretty much says all that’s needed to be said about her. And despite his age and some of his project choices, Morgan Freeman has never performed in a movie without being cool. Here he plays the Fraternity’s patriarch figure Sloan.

Perhaps the coolest thing about “Wanted” is its attitude. Too many movies today seem designed to avoid offense, unless they are a gross –out comedy. As action movies work harder and harder to please a broader audience—with even the “Die Hard” series turning in a PG-13 rated installment last year—they all turn into homogenized humdrum. But there is nothing like an action movie that doesn’t care if you like it or not, because only then is the action truly just for the sake of the action.

“Wanted” is not a perfect movie in any respect. If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I could easily have spent this entire review picking apart all of its inconsistencies. But this movie is trying to have fun with being a movie and not some reflection of the world in which we live. There are moments that are beautiful and moments that are just plain goofy, but “Wanted” is not afraid to try new things and get as beaten and broken as its hero. Some people will understand that and others won’t. While it won’t win just any audience over, those who do get into it will say “Now, that was cool.”

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