Saturday 11 August 2018

From the archive: "Wanted"

Everything there is to know about the attitudes of modern Hollywood towards its audience can be gleaned from the single line of dialogue that gives the tongue-in-cheek shoot-'em-up Wanted its tagline: "Six weeks ago, I was ordinary and pathetic just like you." Which "you" would that be, then? The single mother, doing her best to raise her child right? The retired colonel in his early seventies? Lebanese goat herders? Nope: it's the geeks. Nowadays, it's always the geeks. But what spectacular contempt to demonstrate towards your "ordinary and pathetic" core audience. Still, perhaps it would be churlish to chide a major studio release for refusing to engage with any reality outside of its own in a week where Hancock approaches the superhero movie from a quasi-realist perspective and gets it so wrong, and especially when Wanted moves, from the word go, in the exact opposite direction.

Based on a series of comic books by Mark Miller and J.G. Jones, the film opens with a title card introducing us to The Fraternity, "a clan of weavers who formed a secret society of assassins". We barely have time to ponder this dramatic career shift - did they just run out of wicker? - before being introduced to Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a nebbishy office worker. Young Wesley is the sort of no-name who Googles himself only for his search to yield no results; a pushover with a domineering boss, a crummy apartment under the railway tracks, and a girlfriend busily screwing his own best buddy. The good news for him, not that he's aware of it at first, is that he's apparently the son of one of the best assassins in the business. After his estranged pa's death, the search for a replacement killer leads The Fraternity to call Wes in for training under the aegis of Sloan and Fox (Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie), who school him to use his inherited instincts and bend bullets like Beckham.

It's been directed by the amply named Timur Bekmambetov, the man behind Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, which did a fair impersonation of Hollywood's own Matrix trilogy. The initial impression is that that same Hollywood has imported yet another filmmaker whose interests go no further than sensation - Bekmambetov is a poet of breaking glass (the multiplex Tarkovsky, if you will), but still at something of a loss around narrative - and that Wanted may ultimately be no less of a nerd's wet dream than The Matrix was in the first place: a film in which a pallid drone is transformed into a buff killer, and transformed by Angelina Jolie at that (a figure altogether more conducive to fantasy than Noriyuki "Pat" Morita in the Karate Kid films). Men being what they are, I don't doubt that some will even sigh longingly as Jolie pummels away at McAvoy's midriff with a knuckleduster.

The good news for the rest of us is that, in Bekmambetov's hands, that sensation need not necessarily preclude traces of wit. They're there in the "Don't Miss" promotional banner glimpsed amid a supermarket shootout; in McAvoy's anguished slo-mo cry of "I'm sorry!" to the cops whose barricade he's in the process of flipping his car over; they're there, even, in the way letters displaced from a computer keyboard used to smash some poor sod about the face contrive to spell out "FUCK YOU". (One U is represented by a displaced molar.) Bekmambetov is good with locations: if Wanted's anonymous metropolis-for-hire can't quite match the Watch movies' deployment of Moscow by night, he mines for maximum atmospherics the Fraternity's castle-cum-textile-mill-cum-slaughterhouse base, with its deep-pool baths of candle wax (it aids healing, supposedly) and its incongruous reading room (it's round for a reason; but you have to question whether these guys are the sort who are into rare books).

For an action director, he's also unusually attentive to his performers. I haven't been wholly convinced by McAvoy's claims to leading-man status, but he's an effective, sympathetic presence here - a pipsqueak elevated beyond his workstation - and he nails all the revenge-of-the-nerd moments. Jolie, meanwhile, has reached a point where, Sphinx or Mona Lisa-like, she can appear before us, move not one muscle, and still exert the strangest of fascinations. Perhaps because she understands the need for fixed points in a film as restless and reckless as this. Wanted is almost wholly irresponsible - racking up remarkable levels of carnage and collateral damage, while never letting us in on why the Fraternity's targets need to die (it's "fate", apparently) - and if you weren't in the mood, it could well seem morally reprehensible. Any objections could be muted with a large handful of popcorn, however, and I wouldn't want Bekmambetov to tone down his mayhem if it meant losing a minute of the summer's most stupefying action sequence, involving a train snaking off a bridge over a ravine, or of a finale that calls for a dustcart full of rats crazed on peanut butter.

(June 2008)

Wanted screens on ITV tonight at 10.55pm.

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