Amongst my friends Wanted is viewed with a healthy degree of scepticism. As such rounding up people to actually see the movie with me was something of a Herculean task. So why are people who were quite happy to see Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and yet so against seeing Wanted? The response was that most of them were put off by the entire ‘twisting bullet’ aspect which was prominent in the trailers. This is the kind of thing that is acceptable within the realms of comic book films, but in what is marketed as a straight action thriller it does look admittedly suspect. The fact of the matter is that Wanted is actually a comic book movie in of itself.
Wanted is based off of a mini-series of comics by Mark Millar (who would ultimately be responsible for Marvel’s Ultimates line). Wanted represents one of the few Graphic Novels I’ve read and is based in a world where Super Villains rule the world in secret after successfully killing every living Super Hero. Wanted the film removes the Super Villain aspect of the material, but maintains its central characters prenatural powers. The film still follows Wesley Gibson as he is inducted into a shadowy organisation of assassins, but the Super Human elements of the ‘Fraternity’ are replaced by something a tad more mystical. But even if the film doesn’t feature all the content of its comic counterpart it maintains the tone and spirit of its source quite impressively.
The first action sequence in the film is pretty much a statement of intent. This sequence revolves around duel between a group of assassins that takes place between two skyscrapers and ends with the victor getting sniped from across the city. This sequence not only establishes the heightened reality of the film, but also the visual inventiveness of the film. Assassin’s jump between buildings, bullets curl around cover and the final headshot is not only rendered in loving and bloody fashion but is shown completely in reverse, the bullet arching back through the city to the rifle it has been fired from.
Wanted is a film filled with such moments, every scene brings at least something new or quirky to the table. Be it bank machines calling people Assholes for having no money, bullets passing through the rings of donuts, cars being flipped to allow the driver to shoot through a limo’s sunscreen, or cars propelling themselves into the side of trains the film is just stuffed with all kinds of lunatic spectacle. This should be expected really when the movie is helmed by Timur Bekmambetov who was previously responsible for the Russian Night Watch films. These films dealt with the escalating conflict between supernatural forces of light and darkness in Moscow and were stuffed to the gills with cool little ideas and touches (my favourite being the contextualised subtitles, which appeared all over the screen and shifted fonts and colours depending on who was speaking).
Of course those of you who saw Night Watch will probably remember the films plot matching its delirious visuals, with side stories, sub plots and dozens of characters all interacting with each other for nebulous reasons. It wasn’t that the Night Watch films had a dearth of story; it’s just that Bekmambetov didn’t have a strong enough focus to rest the plot strands on. Wanted seems to show a director who has gotten the bloat out of his system, whilst the film clocks in at just ten minutes shy of two hours you never feel the running time and for the most part it is a surprisingly lean tale.
In Wanted Bekmambetov focuses solely on the character of Wesley Gibson and in doing so finds the strong plot line that was missing from his earlier work. Gibson is an accounts manager who is living in a permanent rut and it’s only with arrival of super assassin Fox that he starts to find himself a purpose. James McAvoy plays Gibson and manages to be both endearing and aggravating at the same time. His early scenes of a life on hold are easy to relate to (especially if you’ve seen Fight Club which the comic book and film both reference a fair bit in the beginning) but rather than wallow in this nihilism McAvoy presents a character that just seems like a regular guy who had plans and never achieved them. The everyman quality that McAvoy brings to the character help to create something akin to a sense of humanity in the midst of a film that is often deliriously extravagant.
The problem is that with the film focused squarely on Gibson none of the other characters really have much of a purpose other than in the context of Gibson. Perhaps the most fleshed out of the supporting cast is Fox, the assassin who is ordered to retrieve and train Gibson. Fox (played by Angelina Jolie who is charming enough and does her usual scary/sultry routine fairly well) is allowed some semblance of character and a flashback, but even that is in service of Gibson.
The other members of the Fraternity fair far worse. Marc Warren plays the ‘Repairman’ whose sole function is to beat the shit out of Gibson as part of his training, you have the knife expert The Butcher who is essentially a larger and better armed version of Cheech Marin’s raucous announcer from From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Meanwhile Common manages to find a character in Gunsmith with even less to do than his character in Smoking Aces. In fact the only character that properly interacts with Gibson out of this bunch is the Russian comic relief character.
These members of the Fraternity are little more than ciphers and their lack of personality really does a lot of damage to the second act of the film. The training segment of Wanted is neat enough, but after a while the lack of interaction between the characters starts to drag on to the point where you’re just willing Gibson to finally get on with it and leave their company. In fact the only likeable character during this point is Sloan who is played by Morgan Freeman and whom effectively runs the Fraternity. You can tell that Freeman is really enjoying himself playing slightly against type and his ruthless exuberance is sometimes a joy to watch.
When Gibson starts working for the Fraternity and trying to find the man who killed his father (the earlier headshot recipient) the film quickly picks up pace again. A couple of assassinations and an action set piece onboard a train prove to be a nice prelude for a finale that actually manages to outshine what has come before. Usually films like this peter out as they reach their end and whilst the final shoot out isn’t as inventive as an earlier car chase or the aforementioned train set piece it still works surprisingly well thanks to an energetic performance from McAvoy and a liberal sprinkling of black humour.
What makes Wanted stand out from recent Hollywood action films is the way its set pieces are staged. A lot of American action pictures seem to be fairly anaemic at the moment. Whilst this has a lot to do with individual directors the trend to remove the gore from action films and shoot with the shaky camera style employed by Paul Greengrass for the (still excellent) Bourne films has removed a lot of the bite from Hollywood films. What Wanted does is treat the gore with a bizarre sort of reverence, each headshot is a bloody affair, the blows Gibson takes actually leave an impact on his face, and each battle is framed with an impassive and steady eye. This is a film in which we’re meant to enjoy and appreciate the bloodletting and as such it is brought to the centre of the screen as much as possible.
What Wanted represents is a film designed to be enjoyed more than anything else. Its primary concern is to entertain and in those terms it never fails. What it loses in character and nuance it makes up for in sheer spectacle and surprisingly economical story telling. Wanted is a film where keyboards are violent weapons, headshots are plentiful and rats are explosive.As such it represents the most fun I’ve had with a film since I caught a midnight screening of Grindhouse.