Hey squid brains! Are you increasingly frustrated by unimaginative gunfights in movies? Has action cinema seemed rather uninspiring since John Woo went back to Hong Kong? Do you think the visual envelope hasn’t been pushed far enough by opprobrium-magnet Michael Bay, a man who has nitroglycerin running through his veins? Well it’s your lucky day, because Timur Bekmambetov has adapted eternal teenager Mark Millar’s sleazy and oddly sentimental liberal-baiting comic Wanted, taking the eyeball-punching overstyle he perfected in his Russian vampire movies, and combined it with uncharacteristic, though very welcome, coherence. Yay, right? So why is the film so disappointing?
I was in two minds about Millar’s original comic, in which the main character graduates from an underwhelming life stuck in a veal-fattening pen ((c) Douglas Coupland in Generation X) to become a supercool supervillain who kills, maims, swears, fucks, and sneers through six issues of overkill, with the odd bit of rape humour thrown in for good measure, because everyone loves rape humour, right? [Insert sarcasm tag here]. Like a brat kid throwing a urine-soaked breezeblock through a church window, Millar wilfully flings poop at society, creating a world where supervillains rule and do every amoral and forbidden thing you can think of, usually with much relish and faux-cool dialogue to point out to the slower readers just how fucking cool the whole thing is FUCK YEAH!
It’s a typical wish-fulfilment fantasy, though hyper-accentuated, dripping with cynical attitood and aimed at the brats who make online gaming such a chore, and while I both resist the childishness and understand its appeal, the most charming thing about it is that at heart it it can be seen as a tribute to older, less gritty comics, which are often spoken of in hushed tones by comic fans horrified by the darker status quo established after the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. While I’m quite happy reading light or dark comics, I liked that Millar was trying to say, “You want dark? I’ll give you the darkest fucking comic you’ll ever read,” even while groaning at the obnoxious arrogance of much of his style. That’s not to say I don’t like his work; his Ultimates run remains one of my favourite things ever, and there were enough imaginative concepts in Wanted to mark it as a qualified success. I just feel like patting him on the head when he’s trying to write tough guy dialogue, because it’s funny hearing a nerdy white guy trying to create characters that are the Kings of Cool (see also: Quentin Tarantino).
———-Wanted spoilers follow————-
The movie reigns in almost all of the overt offensiveness of the original, leaving only hints at its darkness, while retaining the wish-fulfilment premise and nihilistic finale (though it is more open than the comic, and doesn’t have the famous “This is me fucking you in the ass!” last line). As I’ve moaned before, the movie revolves around a league of assassins, not supervillains, which is a shame, though it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. What did bother me is that I couldn’t care less about any of it. When something as wilfully bratty as Millar’s comic contains more emotional charge than your big budget movie, something has gone very wrong.
One of the major problems with the movie is that very nearly every major WOW moment has been featured in the trailers, and as they have been around for months, all that could possibly seem new is the plot, and that runs along such predictable lines that the whole thing seemed cliched even with the visionary stylings of Bekmambetov littered throughout. I loved a lot of those visuals a while back, but now even the bullet curving and wacky car stunts look old hat. By the time the audience finally finds out that, ZOMG, Morgan Freeman is a total bad guy, fatigue will have set in.
Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who were joined this time out by Chris Morgan) may have been responsible for the eminently forgettable The Fast and the Furious, but they also scripted James Mangold’s excellent remake of 3:10 To Yuma (a Shades of Caruso favourite), which effortlessly mixed emotional power, convincing character arcs, and kick-ass showdowns into a resonant, moving tale of redemption and the human condition. Wanted fails to generate any empathic connection with the viewer (at least, I should say, this viewer) as the beats are ticked off with depressingly mechanical precision, despite the appeal of the wish-fulfilment premise potentially mitigating that. There are obvious holes left throughout the narrative that can only be filled by assuming the true villain of the piece is Sloan (Freeman, and not Ron Rifkin, which would be apt considering the slight similarities between this and the first couple of seasons of Alias). Also, the trailer shot of McAvoy bursting through the textile factory window gives away the bullet-strewn vengeance-powered rampage he is inevitably going to go on in the final act.
In addition to that, the film backs away from the gleeful naughtiness of the comic by having him turn his back on both good and evil, choosing to be a free agent instead. Having Wesley’s arc end with him gaining the freedom to be who he wants to be is fine, and touches on a theme from the comic, but it’s underdeveloped here, as are all the plotlines about fate and destiny, while Bekmambetov concentrates more on the wacky visuals and ‘splodey and Angelina’s nekkid buttox.
Plus, as much as the comic’s nastiness grated on me, I did like the sheer amorality of Wesley’s acceptance of evil. I can understand why the movie avoids that outcome, and am not so crazy as to assume any studio would allow the release of a movie where the “hero” is even more unrepentently anti-society than Tyler Durden, but it would have been nice to see it. McAvoy’s final address to the camera loses some of its power because the writers and/or studio are obviously eager not to have the film end on a note advocating sociopathic non-engagement with the world. Though hey, no rape humour, which is a very wise decision.
Perhaps the film will work better once the memory of the oversaturated trailer onslaught fades, but I can’t really see it. There’s a lot that isn’t actually wrong with the movie, but isn’t quite right either. Much as I like James McAvoy (he was great in Shameless, charming on a recent Daily Show, and the only memorable actor in Atonement), he drove me to distraction for a long section of the movie, as he freaks out at all of the carnage and insanity around him. Understandable reactions to being abducted by Angelina Jolie and being repeatedly (and pointlessly) beaten up by both Marc Warren and a knife-wielding jerk who looks like Peter Jackson, but his babbling, high-pitched yelps of teror went right through me like a violin bow being drawn across my nerves. When he finally accepts his abilities, I found his performance much more tolerable as he shuts up and gets on with it, but for the first half of the film, it’s hard-going. Still, though I might not be crazy about the film, I hope it does well just for his sake. He’s an appealing actor, and it would be great to see him go far.
As for Jolie, her role as Alpha Female is totally phoned in, requiring her to do nothing more than pout, pose, and look terribly bored. The only reason to have her in that I can see (other than that her celebrity might get more bums no seats) is as a further example of wish-fulfilment, as Wesley gets to move from his evil ex-girlfriend to The Hottest Woman On The Planet, but as the romance sub-plot hinted at in the trailers seems to have been edited out (it probably tested badly, considering how the movie ends with her sacrifice), she doesn’t get to do anything interesting. She does mack on McAvoy in one scene, where she kisses Wesley just to make his ex-girlfriend feel bad, and I can imagine any jilted guy watching Wanted would really really connect with it, but otherwise she’s just wandering around, blank-faced and seemingly counting money in her head. It’s a very disappointing performance. Anyway, hasn’t Tina Fey been crowned Hottest Woman On The Planet by now? I reckon Wanted would have been an even more gratifyingly weird movie with Fey doing all the bullet-curving. Am I right, people?
No one else gets time to register much, with the movie focusing almost exclusively on McAvoy. Poor Thomas Kretschmann gets to be blank and then tragic, Common looks relentlessly angry to the point of getting frown fatigue, and Morgan Freeman does his now-patented father-figure-with-a-bad-secret role without expending much visible energy. It was nice to see Chris Pratt, aka Ché from The O.C. as Wesley’s shithead best friend, as he is very funny, and he features in some of the best moments in the film, especially the wonderful visual when Wesley wreaks revenge on him with an ergonomic keyboard. It’s immensely satisfying and precisely the kind of WTF idea that Bekmambetov does so well.
There were other things to like about it, even if the whole left me cold. The concept of The Loom of Fate is so bizarre and out of left-field I couldn’t help but be impressed, though I’m frustrated at how half-hearted the movie’s exploration of what fate and purpose are. Perhaps that’s mostly because I can’t help but compare the film to The Matrix, another wish-fulfilment fantasy that deals with the problem of free will and determinism, with the Wachowskis picking the quandary apart to such an extent that audiences the world over got bored and forgot about it (not this nerd, though!). Also great was the “I’m sorry” running joke, a fantastic set-piece on a train, and the staggeringly nasty death of Marc Warren, a scene so gratuitously unpleasant I barked gales of laughter around the crowded auditorium (sorry, fellow movie-goers). I’d give the movie an extra star or thumbs up or whatever just for that insane moment alone.
Even taking that into account, it’s still half-baked. By the time the final showdown comes along, with McAvoy reduced to wandering around a shattered factory bellowing, “Slooooooooooan!!!!” over and over and over again, I was waiting for the wrap-up. I’d had enough of cool pouting Angie, and shakily-shot action scenes, and McAvoy spitting up blood (really, did we need to see him getting beaten up for so long when there really isn’t much reason for it?), and telegraphed plot twists, and the endless, seriously endless shots of trains. Does Bekmambetov have a train fetish? They should have changed the name of the movie to Bullet Train, or Off The Rails, or Buffet Carnage. Because, I’m not kidding, there are a lot of trains in this movie.
Not that I’ve got anything against trains, of course, and I’m not just saying that because in a couple of days I will be spending a lot of time on one, and don’t want to offend them.