James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson
Morgan Freeman as Sloan
Angelina Jolie as Fox
Terence Stamp as Pekwarsky
Thomas Kretschmann as Cross
Common as Gunsmith
Kristen Hager as Cathy
Konstantin Khabensky as The Repairman
David O’Hara as Mr. X
Dato Bakhtadze as The Butcher
Chris Pratt as Barry
Lorna Scott as Janice
Sophiya Haque as Puja
Brad Calcaterra as Assassin Max Petridge
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Dark, violent and very funny — “Wanted” is the action movie redefined.
Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a lowly office worker whose life is forever changed when he’s saved from being killed by a mysterious woman Fox (Angelina Jolie). She brings him to Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the head of a Fraternity of Assassins who tells Wesley that the father who abandoned him as a baby was one of their most-skilled killers, but that he was recently murdered. To avenge his father’s death, Wesley trains with the Fraternity to hone the reflexes and abilities he inherited from his father to avenge the murder.
The challenges of creating an original action movie based on a little-known comic book has led to some truly awful adaptations, and trying to create a hero you can relate to from intentionally unlikable characters is equally difficult. Will Smith has that challenge to face next week, but it’s a harder obstacle for the unlikely collaborators of Scottish actor James McAvoy and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch”) to turn Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ cynical graphic novel “Wanted” into something that can be enjoyed by a wider audience that likely won’t even be remotely familiar with the original source material.
As the film begins, Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is going through his normally mundane day-to-day office life as an account manager, experiencing severe anxiety attacks that requires him to take pills, as he remains obvious to the fact that his live-in girlfriend is screwing his co-worker during his lunch breaks. One seemingly uneventful day, Wesley runs into a beautiful woman (Angelina Jolie) at the pharmacy, who saves him from being shot by an assassin, and Wesley’s life is forever turned upside-down as he learns the truth about the father who abandoned him as a baby. Once Wesley learns the truth, much of the next half hour deals with his training with Fox and the members of the Fraternity, a brutal induction into the world of assassins to help Wesley hone his particular skills that involves super-speed reflexes and the ability to bend bullets in mid-air.
Because the screenplay for the movie was written concurrently with the comic book, the story diverges quite dramatically, ignoring all of the original comic book references, but perfectly capturing the cynical tone of the book and the relationship between the characters within a different framework. Similarly, “Wanted” isn’t your father’s superhero movie with colorful spandex or leather, but a dark and violent action movie that never pulls its punches, especially when they’re directed at James McAvoy’s pretty face, which doesn’t stay that way for very long. Overall, the movie is always playing the violence for laughs, the writing suitably snarky to capture the tone and the attitude of Millar’s writing in the graphic novel, despite the characters and story being essentially different.
As desperately as James McAvoy tries to break away from his chronically nice guy roles, his Wesley Gibson is immediately likeable and relatable being the perfect everyman, like every put-upon office worker who has ever dreamed of getting out of the normal routine and telling their boss off, but once he’s gone through training, he’s suitably convincing as a gun-toting action hero, as well. You’d be hard-pressed to find any time that Angelina Jolie has been sexier as she is playing the deadly Fox, a badass femme fatale whose relationship with Wesley is kept somewhat more hands-off than in the comic book. Likewise, Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast in the mentorly role of Sloan, think Morpheus to McAvoy’s Neo (if you must), and in his mouth, the words might as well be Shakespeare, as he offers much of the film’s exposition as well as some great lines later that will have people cheering.
There’s a lot to be said about casting such strong dramatic actors against an action-driven backdrop, but compared to the main three, neither Common nor Thomas Kretchman add much to the mix as members of the Fraternity. There is an amusing callback role for Konstantin Khabensky, the lead actor from Bekmambetov’s previous movies, though, and Terrence “General Zod” Stamp is given an opportunity to make up for his “Elektra” faux-pas. Most of the smaller roles, like Wesley’s boss and friend, are played as deliberately cartoonish stereotypes, which just makes it that much more entertaining when they get their due.
In the end, what leaves the biggest and most lasting impression will be how high Timur Bekmambetov raises the bar on his visually stunning stunt-driven set pieces thanks to a bigger budget and more time to perfect the CG. The first time we see the latter at play is when a super-assassin takes out a cadre of bad guys before being shot in the head in glorious, gory slow motion himself. As supremely lazy as it might be to compare the gunwork in “Wanted” to the Wachowski’s famous “bullet time,” it’s probably the only way to describe and put into perspective how Wesley is able to bend and aim his bullets. Even so, within the first 15 minutes, Bekmambetov has delivered a car chase that’s equal to anything in the “Bourne” movies, that’s surpassed by a later chase on a speeding train that might seem de rigeur until the whole thing plummets off an elevated bridge, something that’s so hard to believe that your mind will be blown if you try to figure out how they pulled it off.
Things get somewhat heavy and pretentious when we’re introduced to something called “The Loom of Fate” and the bigger picture surrounding the Fraternity’s centuries-old mission is revealed. This mythology tends to bog things down in exposition, but it’s always tempered with action and more slow-motion gunfights that have preceded it. There are certainly enough twists along the way that things rarely go the way you expect them, but when it comes down to it, you always feel as if you’re watching something different and special, something you’ll want to see more than once for sure.
The Bottom Line:
So much of “Wanted” will have you laughing and cheering that it’s really the perfect summer escapist action flick, though rather than being the dumb popcorn flicks that have become so common, “Wanted” is smart and thought-provoking and rarely goes anywhere you might expect. As hard as it might be for “Wanted” to break away from the “Fight Club in the Matrix” comparisons bandied upon the comic, it’s the highest compliment to say that “Wanted” is the R-rated action movie we’ve all been waiting for and Wesley Gibson is the hero we all want to be.