WANTED (2008)** movie review by COOP

Posted on July 4th, 2008
Posted on July 4th, 2008

After seeing the trailers for “Wanted,” I thought: “Okay, here comes another ‘Matrix’ ripoff.” Never mind that it stars Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie and one of my favorite newcomers, James McAvoy. Then I found out it was adapted from a comic book. Funny, because I know comics and I had never heard of this one. I went to a local bookstore, located a “Wanted” graphic novel and flipped through it. What I (briefly) saw and read looked nothing like the scenes in the trailer. I sighed, put the comic away and decided I would reserve judgment for when I screened the film adaptation. However, I couldn’t help but keep my expectations low since the action of “Wanted” looked disappointingly familiar.

Stylized violence must, and often does, change its modus operandi every decade in order to stay fresh. “Enter the Dragon” and The Wild Bunch” revolutionized kung fu and gun violence (respectively) in the 1970’s. “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Rambo” ruled the 80’s. Hong Kong gunplay cinema and “The Matrix” raised the bar in the 90’s. Not much has impressed the masses in the 00’s. Could “Wanted” be the new “Matrix?”

It desperately wanted to be. Universal Studios imported Russia’s hottest director, Timur Bekmambetov, to bring a stylistic approach to the action in “Wanted.” With the internationally successful “Nightwatch” trilogy under his belt, fans anticipated Bekmambetov’s first American film to inject the genre with a fresh new look. Apparently Russia is about nine years behind the times because “Wanted” did not look any better, nor did it surpass anything experienced in “The Matrix.” I could sense this from the first trailer, hence my lack of enthusiasm before seeing it. I didn’t feel much disappointment after the film because it turned out exactly as I had expected.

The story goes like this: Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is a stressed-out office drone who considers himself a loser. His boss abuses him, his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend and he has to medicate himself for extreme anxiety. Suddenly a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) appears, saves him from an assassin and drops him at the feet of Sloan (Freeman) who informs Gibson of an inherited legacy. Apparently Gibson is the son of a recently deceased superhuman assassin and must join “The Fraternity” of superhuman assassins to avenge his father and make the world safe.

At the beginning of “Wanted,” I immediately pinpointed its first influence. The first act is “Fight Club,” almost scene for scene. Same type of character, same career situation, same frustrations, same narration and even the same camerawork. Bekmambetov ripped it off, quite blatantly. As soon as Angelina Jolie shows up, the film then becomes an unapologetic rip-off of the “The Matrix.” Only in the third act does the film take a life of its own after an interesting twist, but the final climax is so silly, I nearly tuned out.

The script explains very little of the methods by which these assassins operate. How do they perform superhuman acts?… An abnormal adrenaline boost. Fine, but how does that allow them to curve bullets or assassinate someone from tens of miles away with an antique gun? And what was with those weird, modified 19th century firearms or the crazy/special bullets they fired? Unexplained. Their technique for quick healing after battles? Barely explained. Even the method they used for choosing their assassination targets was inventive, yet weak and full of holes. That sums up the plot and mythology behind this film: So many holes, so few corks to plug them up.

I have no gripes with the acting, save McAvoy. With his baby face, short stature and skinny frame, he doesn’t make a very passable action star. Without his British accent, he barely commands any presence and comes across as a whinier version of Toby Maguire. Disappointing considering his commanding lead performance in the “Children of Dune” Sci-fi Channel mini-series and his excellent turn as Idi Amin’s personal doctor in “The Last King of Scotland.” Although I think he’d make an excellent Spider-Man, I’m going to assume his weak character in “Wanted” was a result of miscasting. Morgan Freeman delivers an atypical performance as a jerk and he pulls it off nicely. I am curious as to what made him choose this script (change of pace like his recent Broadway jaunt?). Jolie plays… well, Jolie and she does it well as always. Her character, Fox, acts like a more amoral version of Laura Croft in “Tomb Raider.” Feels like the role was written exclusively for her.

I despised Bekmambetov’s “Nightwatch” series as a derivative knock-off of “The Matrix,” and “Blade.” I feel the same about “Wanted.” It’s not different enough from the films that came before it. If you missed out on previous action films with similar styles like the fantastic “Equilibrium” and “Blade II,” “Wanted” might impress you. Even inferior films like “Ultraviolet” and the “Resident Evil” trilogy spent the decade wearing out this outrageously unrealistic style. I disliked “Wanted” for the same reason I hated last year’s ridiculous “Shoot ‘Em Up.” It’s like somebody forgot to tell these filmmakers they were late to the outrageous action party by at least five years.

Looking towards the future of the action film, I suggest Hollywood points its sights in a new direction. Foreign efforts like “Ong Bak” (Thailand 2003), “The Nest” (France 2002), “Oldboy” (Korea 2003) and “Brother” (Japan 2000) offer a fresher angle on cinematic violence. They champion realistic stunts with explosive brutality and often fear/shock to ratchet up the tension. Last year’s new Bond film “Casino Royal” seemed influenced by this style. Even the new “Batman” movies favor this approach. French director Florent Emilio Siri (“The Nest”) directed the superior action thriller “Hostage” with Bruce Willis in 2005, but it fell flat with an American audience that wasn’t ready for its jarring blend of action and horror. I suspect after “Wanted,” audiences will accept this new style after having been beaten over the head with the old year after year. Wake up, Hollywood. It’s nearly the 2010’s. Let’s leave the 90’s, Matrix-like action of “Wanted” behind and try something new.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Forget “Wanted” for a second and take a look at this: A scene from the Korean film “Oldboy,” and I’ll be danged if it ain’t one of the best action scenes ever filmed. Imagine, for a change, an American movie with a scene like this one. One hero with a hammer in his hand, a knife sticking out of his back, 20 villains and one long, thin hallway. Let’s see James McAvoy pull this one off…

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