“Night Watch” (2004) put Russian director Timur Bekmambetov on the map. Based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, it tells of the ancient battle between light (good) and dark (evil) and the man who will decide which side will triumph. Why did this Russian language film make such a splash? It’s a visual stunner with plenty of violence and “disturbing images.” What’s more, it deals with the supernatural – vampires, witches and the like – and it’s “hip.” Two years later, “Day Watch,” the second part of the trilogy was released. The third part, “Twilight Watch” is due out in 2009.
Thanks to Hollywood, those who want to experience Bekmambetov without having to read those pesky subtitles can see “Wanted,” which marks his English-language debut. Based on Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ “dark” comic series, the film centers on Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), an account manager who admits he’s apathetic about his existence. And why not? Being him sucks. His red-headed harpy of a boss cracks a whip, uh stapler, at her employees, making them stay late until they finish their reports. His girlfriend complains about their digs and then fornicates with his slacker coworker on his “bargain-priced” Ikea table. And he suffers from an anxiety disorder that only abates when he’s popping pills. Gibson is a pathetic, wimpy cuckold; he’s essentially everything “Maxim” tells a man not to be.
But before we can give up on our flaccid protagonist, there’s hope. And it comes in the guise of a 1,000-year-old fraternity of weavers; a band of assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Recognizing that Gibson has an inherent gift and a destiny, the septuagenarian dispatches his right-hand “man,” Fox (Angelina Jolie) to recruit Gibson for a job that only he can do – kill the rogue assassin (Thomas Kretschmann) who betrayed and murdered his father. But first, he has to be trained in gun and knife play; he has to grow a set of rock hard dangling ones. That way, in the end he can tell his boss to go f*ck herself, and later, ask us, rather smarmily, “What have you done lately?”
Although it didn’t happen in my cinema, I can imagine that a lot of “Wanted” viewers will feel like pumping their fists, shouting “Yeah” into the night air. It has that anti-establishment, carpe diem sensibility about it. It also challenges the viewer to make a choice – to be a victim or a victimizer. As Sloan says, rather eloquently, each of us must make a decide whether we want “to remain ordinary, pathetic, beat-down, coasting through a miserable existence, like sheep herded by fate,” or to “take control of your own destiny and join us, releasing the caged wolf you have inside … This is the decision that lies before you now: the sheep, or the wolf. The choice is yours.” All this sounds fine and dandy, until you learn that this group of assassins gets their kill orders from a mystical loom. After it weaves a piece of fabric, they take a magnifying glass to it to read its mistakes. If the errant thread is on top it either translates to a zero or a one; and if it’s on the bottom, it’s the other. Yes, it’s writing binary code, which then gives them the name of their target. This wasn’t the only plot detail that made me utter, WTF?
Aside from these types of moments, my biggest gripe with “Wanted” is that we’ve seen it all before. The special effects, which are truly amazing, can be seen in Bekmambetov’s previous films or in “The Matrix.” (References to his trilogy abound. He even brings his “Night Watch” lead actor Konstantin Khabensky, who plays the Exterminator, along for the ride.) Furthermore, the message of “Wanted” is reminiscent of the one found in “Fight Club” – it even shares an Ikea reference – but whereas David Fincher’s film really did challenge the system, “Wanted” lacks the same balls out commitment. “Fight Club” tells us to strip ourselves down, to remove the artifice that comes from our attachment to things, people, and even ideas; and ultimately to embrace chaos and disorder. “Wanted” tells us what? To take control of our lives, whatever that means, by assuming our “destiny.” What makes this even more laughable is that it is James McAvoy, Mr. Tumnus, the faun from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Robbie Turner from “Atonement,” who is asking us what we did lately? He should be asking himself that question.
And as for Angelina Jolie, how is someone this anorexic and exhausted-looking supposed to appear sexy or tough? Sure, she can handle a firearm, but as far as hand-to-hand combat is concerned, she looks like a small wind could blow her over. During one scene, during which she’s pummeling McAvoy, I kept thinking that she better stop or she’ll do herself in. Also, she needs to get some new facial expressions. If she were a character in “Zoolander” her pose would be called “Glower,” because that’s the extent of her “looks.” As for Morgan Freeman, does he have a gambling problem or something? A lot of debts to pay off? Otherwise why is an actor of his caliber, turning himself into Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken, the guys who won’t say no to a paycheck? He needs to take a break and rethink his career.
In all, I couldn’t find much to like about “Wanted.” It’s a poser film, trying to appear hip and cool, when it’s derivative and long-winded. It’s all style over substance. I’m sure it will have its fans, though, particularly those who list “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “Smokin’ Aces” among their favorite films. What’s sad, though, is it’s really just the male equivalent of a chick flick. In these so-called women’s films, the sad sack protagonist is told that in order to get the guy, she has to put on make-up, a sexy dress, and act slutty or stupid. In films like “Wanted,” the equally sad sack guy is told that to be a man he has to drive a fast car, shoot people, and have an f-off attitude. I say, let’s just be who we are and give Hollywood the middle finger.
Timur Bekmambetov (director) / Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Chris Morgan (screenplay)
CAST: James McAvoy … Wesley Gibson
Morgan Freeman … Sloan
Angelina Jolie … Fox
Terence Stamp … Pekwarsky
Thomas Kretschmann … Cross
Common … Gunsmith
David O’Hara … Mr. X