BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 26, 2008
Any film that features Angelina Jolie as an international assassin is, pretty much by definition, a film that glamorizes violence. But Wanted, the Hollywood debut of Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, does more than glamorize. It glorifies. It fetishizes. It consecrates. The crunch of bone against bone, the rasp of blade through flesh, and (especially) the planting of bullet in forehead such that it may emerge as a crimson bloom out the back of the skull--the movie’s commitment to the staging of such traumas is so complete that they almost seem justified on aesthetic grounds alone.
Wanted is in many ways a deplorable film, but it is also--and, depending upon your perspective, this is either a good or a bad thing--an immensely stylish, effective one. More than any film since The Matrix, it is a ballet of brutality. But unlike Keanu’s excellent adventure, which tarted itself up with mystical mumbo jumbo and a sci-fi conceit (and made sure most of its victims were computer simulations), Wanted is blunt and unapologetic. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a movie that advertised itself more plainly as an escapist fantasy for masculine impotence.
Loosely based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted opens with a setup straight out of a Charles Atlas ad: Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a skinny accounts manager at a dehumanizing firm who is bullied by his fat, repellent boss and cuckolded by his presumed best friend. (All that keeps him from having sand kicked in his face is the fact that he doesn’t visit a beach.) But one day at the pharmacy Wesley is approached by a slinky assassin with the all-too-literal name Fox (Angelina Jolie, sporting enough tattoos to give Allen Iverson pause), who saves him from a competing killer (Thomas Kretschmann) and bundles him off to her organization’s hideout in an old, castle-like textile factory.
There, her boss, Sloan (Morgan Freeman), explains that they are members of The Fraternity, a centuries’ old line of assassins charged with maintaining “balance” in the world. Wesley’s long-lost father was a member, too, and he bequeathed his son an unanticipated genetic inheritance: What Wesley believes to be frequent panic attacks are in fact floods of adrenaline so intense that, properly controlled, they can make time itself seem to stop. Within minutes, our erstwhile accounts manager is (literally) shooting the wings off flies. Yes, Wesley is the Harry Potter of hit men, rescued from the workaday world by a fantastical patrimony long hidden from him.
The Fraternity’s training regimen, however, bears little resemblance to Hogwarts. Shaping the perfect assassin, it seems, requires that the raw material be punched, kicked, and stabbed a great deal, with periodic interludes in a special healing bath that allows wounds to close and bones to knit at an accelerated pace. Wesley must also learn Wanted’s signature addition to the cinema of violence, the ability to “curve” bullets around obstacles with a flick of the wrist. Soon enough, the rookie hit man is exercising such talents on a series of nameless victims; later he’ll be forced to use them on colleagues as well, as The Fraternity proves to be somewhat less fraternal than advertised.
Like Wesley’s novel superpower, Wanted is an extended rush of adrenaline, exactly the visceral experience action films always promise but rarely deliver. In typical fashion, the crimes against physics are no less notable than those against morality: Cars flip over other cars so that shots may be fired through sunroofs, bullets bend and twist their way across entire city blocks, a firefight takes place on a derailed train plunging into an alpine ravine. None of the ideas are particularly innovative, but Bekmambetov’s gift for spatial choreography is impressive. Best known for his Russian Night Watch series, the director seems poised to reinvigorate the action genre in much the way John Woo did 20 years ago.
McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, Atonement) again demonstrates his versatility in the role of Wesley, and Morgan Freeman opens up a can of Morgan Freemanism slightly nastier than usual. But despite her subsidiary role as Fox, this is Angelina Jolie’s movie from the moment she glides onscreen. It’s been a long time since a sex bomb of her caliber has affected so masculine a sense of cool, and if what she delivers here is more pose than performance, it is nonetheless effortless and ineffable. When, in the latter half of the movie, Wesley asks Fox, “Have you ever thought about being someone else? Someone normal,” she replies simply, “No.” I haven’t heard a movie line all year that was easier to believe.
Yet there is something sour and inhumane about Wanted that goes beyond the all-too-common ultraviolence. This is a film in which there is no joy to be found apart from the joy of violent mastery, in which any human connection is a sign of weakness and invitation to betrayal. Even sex has been banished from this particular male fantasy: The only times the subject comes up it is as humiliation (Wesley’s cheating girlfriend), retaliation (his one kiss from Fox is a vengeful pantomime for the benefit of said girlfriend), or frustration (he--and, as of next week, millions of devastated teenage boys--narrowly misses seeing a naked Fox climb out of her revitalizing bath).
The underlying rage against women is hard to miss: Apart from titanium sex goddess Fox, the entire gender is represented by an ugly, emasculating boss and a bitchy, disloyal girlfriend. But even this sentiment takes a back seat to the contempt the movie heaps on any man weak enough to endure such abuse. Late in the movie, Wesley addresses the audience directly: “Six weeks ago, I was ordinary and pathetic, just like you. … This is me taking control. What the fuck have you done lately?” Since you ask so nicely, Wesley, I’ll tell you: I’ve watched a movie that, while fiercely entertaining, made me fear for the emotional health of my gender. You have a problem with that?
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.