Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review: Wanted

There will be spoilers. To be honest, I'm not sure whether knowing them ahead of time would really detract from one's enjoyment of the film, but I'll flag them or something when the time comes. Because I'm cool like that.

If I can start with a digression (is that even logically possible?), my first big reaction to Wanted was, " this really the first Angelina Jolie movie I've ever seen?" For all the fact that Jolie is a humanitarian, a paparazzi super-target, a reformed(?) psychopath, and quite possibly the only celebrity I could legitimately see starting a new career as an international jewel thief, I spent quite a bit of Wanted finding myself confused by the very idea of Angelina Jolie actually appearing in a movie. A character actress she most certainly isn't.

Scanning her IMDB filmography, I was wrong. I've seen two Angelina Jolie films before this: Shark Tale, an inoffensive movie in the Shrek mold where she probably had a decent role, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film probably most notable as the precursor of more polished green screen extravaganzas like 300 and Sin City. It also could have been notable as the film to start the trend of using archive footage of dead actors, but despite a noble effort by Superman Returns that hasn't quite caught on yet.

In a weird quirk that I find weird and everyone else will likely find boring, both Shark Tale and Sky Captain were released in 2004. Four years later, her two big films are Wanted and Kung Fu Panda, in which she has a minor (if featured) role. I fully intend to see Kung Fu Panda at some point, if only because much like Billy Batson shouting "Shazam!" turns him into Captain Marvel, Jack Black shouting "Squadoosh" turns me into a gibbering eight-year-old desperate to give Dreamworks money. So yeah, for whatever reason, every four years produces two Angelina Jolie movies I want to see, one an animated movie and another one that might as well be. So yeah, I should be on the lookout in 2012, I guess, when I imagine she'll be appearing in Piggy Hamlet: A Porker of a Revenge and an adaptation of Grant Morrison's "everything ever is absolutely true" mega-mindfuck The Invisibles. Of course, she'll be playing Lord Fanny, "the Brazilian transgendered shaman." Can't fucking wait. Hell, if all goes according to plan, I'll be writing and directing.

Sorry for the disturbingly AiCN-style transgression, but I had a bit of a hidden agenda behind my babbling. As you might have noticed from my somewhat forced Captain Marvel analogy and the reference to The Invisibles, I can say without fear of contradiction that I know my fucking comics. Sadly, I haven't read Wanted, which puts me in the relatively unusual position of being a massive comic book nerd with no knowledge of the source material (although that isn't a million miles away from how I approached Iron Man, truth be told, and certainly that was the case with 300, so maybe not all that unusual). Point is, I know comics. And, to be honest, Wanted didn't really feel like much of a comic book movie. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Look, I'm going nowhere here. I know it, and now, since I just told you, I imagine you know it as well. So let me reduce Wanted to a simple equation...

Fight Club + Shoot 'Em Up + Mark Millar's Insanity = Wanted

The film borrows a number of similar stylistic quirks from Fight Club in setting up James McAvoy as a go-nowhere working class schlub, and it's here where the film probably suffers the most from the comparison. Director Timur Bekmambetov is a highly proficient action director, but he lacks some of David Fincher's visual genius and ability to make disparate quirks cohere into something bigger. As much as McAvoy is really rather good in the role, his narration is the weak link in his performance, and 2008 James McAvoy has nothing on 1999 Edward Norton. (2008 Edward Norton might be another issue entirely.)

That isn't to say Wanted is in any sense a ripoff of Fight Club, but anyone who has seen both films - and I'm guessing there's a substantial overlap within the film's intended demographic - can't help but make the connection, at least in the first thirty minutes. After that, it heads into the sort of gleefully over-the-top, ultraviolent giddiness that has become male moviegoers' leading guilty pleasure. It's fun, it's (intentionally) hilarious, and it's got Angelina Jolie's naked ass in it. Not a bad haul.

I already said James McAvoy is good, and the cast in general is strong, although this certainly isn't a movie that demands much from its thespians. I'm hard-pressed to name a standout, but that doesn't really hurt the film. Like I said, the point of the film is to be badass, and by and large it delivers.

If there is a big problem with the film, it's the plot. It can be reduced to two sentences, which will be separated by some helpful spoiler space. Before I do so, if you're still on the fence about this film, I can say this: if you enjoy adrenaline-fueled visual spectacle, this film is a very reasonable choice. It's a great summer movie, which really only means it's a good movie, but whatever. Anyway, if you've already seen it or don't mind being spoiled (I'd contend it doesn't make much of a difference, but it's your call), you may keep reading.


James McAvoy is recruited and trained by a fraternity of assassins to kill an evil rogue agent.

OK, now your spoiler space. Because I'm an asshole, I'll fill it with an unflattering picture of James McAvoy.

And now for the second sentence.


James McAvoy finds out the evil rogue agent was really a good guy (not to mention his father) and that Morgan Freeman is evil, leading him to kill every last motherfucker in the fraternity, apart from Angelina Jolie, who obligingly does the job herself.

Well, that's basically it. Jolie actually kills a bunch of other assassins as well before ultimately offing herself by firing a bullet in a perfect circle (man, that just makes me feel dumb just typing that out), but whatever. As far as plots go, this is pretty bog-standard. Dude finds traitor, finds out traitor isn't traitor, and then takes his revenge. Even if I hadn't seen the red-band trailer where Morgan Freeman says "motherfucker", which is a sure sign he's evil, I'm pretty sure I could have guessed that a mile away.

And that's the essential problem. It's a film about super-assassins, and yet the film almost completely eschews even the slightest shade of gray. Sure, there's a little rationalization of the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" variety, but the film has clear heroes and clear villains, instead of what it really should have: a bunch of fucked up assassins who have convinced themselves this is OK.

I hate armchair rewrites of movies, where reviewers give their own half-assed ideas for how the film should have gone. So I will, of course, do precisely that. Either the film should have made a bigger issue of the morality of its characters' actions, painting things not as heroes and villains but instead as a bunch of antiheroes, OR the film should have embraced the Shoot 'Em Up route of pure adrenaline milkshake. Which is something, truth be told, I would have drank. The milkshake, I mean. I'm making a There Will Be Blood reference, people. Do try to keep up.

Stuck in the middle as it is, the film's plot feels so half-assed that it detracts a little from the admittedly ridiculously entertaining action. Which is a shame really, because I suspect either alternative direction coupled with this level of talent could have unleashed a transcendent motion picture. Oh well. Still fun though. Especially when the film's ultimate struggle is between Mr. Tumnus and the dude who drove Miss Daisy. That's pretty fucking spectacular.

Overall Grade: B

Note: Sorry that this post was so meandering. I'll try harder next time to keep things streamlined. To be honest, though, I know you can get a review of Wanted pretty much anywhere, so I thought I might more focus on my own impressions and random takeaway points. Make of that what you will.

No comments: