Summer Movie Suicide Mission No. 18: Wanted

July 27, 2008

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or curvy bullet action.

In some kind of alternate, Matrix-free universe, Wanted would be seen as some kind of impressive technical achievement: the stunts are well choreographed, the plot deals with a richly developed hidden community, and the CGI can make bullets do some crazy stuff. Instead, Wanted comes off cold, trying to piggyback off of a superior sci-tech franchise about seven years too late.

Wanted‘s signature move is its use of the “curved bullet,” a lame ripoff of BulletTime where the extreme slow motion is used to get a better look at the implement flying through the air. In the Matrix, it was a fresh technology, and it fit the impossibly high-tech motif of that film. In Wanted, the filmmakers try to build a plot around the effect, and just seem to come up small.

Still, that’s not nearly the biggest problem with Wanted. Even at their best, special effects can never make a movie. As a public, we’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see; every “new” effects style is really just a variation on what’s come before. Similarly, bad effects can’t break a film that has a rewarding narrative. This is filmmaking 101, and Wanted fails.

For starters, the plot is ridiculously convoluted. James McAvoy (who seemed to worry more about perfecting his American accent than bother with actually acting) starts out the film as average Joe schlub, working a dead end job, with a cheating girlfriend and a crippling anxiety disorder. Soon he’s recruited by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman into The Fraternity (creative name!), a centuries-old team of assassins, under the pretense that his father (a world class killer who McAvoy had never known) has just been killed. And the same rogue who killed the father is now after McAvoy.

This turns out to be a lie, and the whole Fraternity concept turns out to be kind of bullshit itself. The lies upon lies make even the ostensible good guys unlikeable, and the filmmakers intended for McAvoy to come out as the lone wolf hero in this equation. But the film is anchored by occasional narration by the McAvoy character, where he unwittingly reveals himself to be a first class asshole, even going so far, in the film’s final moments, to insult the audience directly, essentially calling us out for not having freaky mind powers and taking delight in indiscriminately killing people. Thanks, James.

The rest of the cast in pretty plain and unremarkable. Jolie delivers a performance so one note that the biggest stretch of her acting talents comes when she devours a cheeseburger, and act which, judging by the width of her biceps alone, she would never accomplish in real life. Freeman, similarly, just shows up and does that thing he does in every movie. A kind appraisal of Freeman’s acting would call him a throwback to the golden age of cinema before method acting, when you just had to have a familiar face and a voice that echoed god’s. Me, I just get bored by seeing the same performance all the time. Though in this film, Freeman does say “fuck” a lot. It’s the little nuances that count.

In a big year for superheroes, Wanted plays a little bit with that genre, even if that’s not its main intention. The Fraternity members definitely have talents that are superhuman, but the film can’t decide if it wants to go down that road, or just make all its characters into little James Bonds, human but invincible, and with lots of cool gadgets. The whole endeavor seems incredibly schizophrenic, trying to develop audience loyalty in its characters, while not even really knowing what those characters are supposed to be. It may have been better served to play the superpower aspect up. In a hyper violent, high action mess like this, the audience might react better if it wasn’t expected to care about the characters on a human level. Especially in the case of McAvoy, who, by the end of the film, undermines all the goodwill he started with.

I realize it’s a bit like splitting hairs to worry about plot and characterization in a film that doesn’t really care about either. If Wanted wasn’t so derivative in the “stuff go boom” category, that other stuff might be forgivable.

Film: Wanted
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Common

Viewing Situation: Weekend matinee, half full; digital projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 72%
My Grade (Out of 10): 3

Next Up: Meet Dave

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