Now this is how you start a summer movie. After some preliminary nonsense, Wanted kicks itself into fifth gear when unhappy account manager Wesley (James McAvoy), having briefly exited his hellish cubicle prison, stops at the pharmacy for anxiety meds and finds himself in the middle of a shootout between a mysterious gent and supernova-hot Fox (Angelina Jolie), attired in a sheer white dinner gown, sporting midnight eye shadow, Asian tats and a devilish stare, and wielding a shiny pistol which she soon attaches to a bendable machine gun. Convenience store firefighting gives way to automotive mayhem as Fox (with cowardly Wesley in tow) proceeds to spin, skid and flip her cherry-red sports car through traffic in fantastic ways, often while lying flat on her back atop the car’s hood in a position that offers a point-blank panty-view to Wesley, understandably blown away by this living, breathing quintessence of badass sexuality. It’s a grandly kinetic sequence, the type of balls-to-the-wall opener that takes delirious pleasure in topping its every previous bit of mind-boggling outrageousness, a pile-up of giddy adrenalized stunts that serves as a thrown gauntlet to all would-be popcorn-flick challengers.
None of this season’s action extravaganzas have yet to match this film’s icebreaker, but then again, neither does anything else in this adaptation of Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’s graphic novel. The hazard of early gratification is raised expectations, and though it never becomes a slog, the rest of Timur Bekmambetov’s film can’t muster a similar sustained high, instead delivering mildly satisfying awesomeness (of special note: a keyboard-to-the-face gag) in the course of a thoroughly clichéd story. As with the Russian director’s Hollywood calling cards Night Watch and Day Watch, Bekmambetov’s stateside debut is propped up by Matrix-isms: a “pussy” office drone is shaken from his waking slumber to discover there’s a secret society of ultra-fighters with bullet-time superpowers, and that he’s destined to fulfill a prophesy with a striking goddess-killer by his side. Bekmambetov’s narrative and aesthetic borrowing from the Wachowskis’ influential series is pronounced to the point of being plagiaristic, such that even the oracular Loom of Fate—a weaving apparatus that provides target orders to Sloan (Morgan Freeman), leader of the thousand-year-old assassin guild known as the Fraternity—supplies information via a fabric code reminiscent of The Matrix‘s computer ciphers. Storytelling originality is so sparse, in fact, that the film’s idea of a novel twist is to switch resources and steal a page from the Star Wars playbook.
Derivation in this instance, however, isn’t as incapacitating as one might expect, in part because Bekmambetov understands the rhythms of both individual combat-heavy skirmishes and action films as a whole—the need to begin with a blistering bang, lace narrative-establishing material with equal doses of everyman befuddlement (Wesley), lethal eroticism (Jolie) and mythic gibberish (Sloan), and then mount a series of increasingly hectic set pieces culminating with an orgiastic climax. That last blast of euphoric carnage never really materializes, since Bekmambetov ultimately opts for merely an amped-up version of Neo’s slow-mo office building assault, but Wanted otherwise maintains an adequately energized verve. The extrasensory faculties possessed by Fox, Wesley and their ilk involve bending the trajectory of bullets and controlling a hyper-rapid heart rate in order to gain unnaturally fast reaction times, two abilities that—like most of this saga—make next to no sense but afford the director with opportunities for some seriously out-there fights. Despite the proceedings’ omnipresent artificiality, though, Bekmambetov prevents CG intangibility from taking over by grounding his extremeness in meaty corporeality, his camera regularly fixating on gnarled, bullet hole-violated human and animal flesh.
Speaking of bodies, Jolie’s is here front and center, her svelte frame slinking across the screen with an alluring animalism magnified by the steamy twinkle in her eyes and sensual gestures as small as a wave of the hand or a shrug of the shoulder. Whereas McAvoy’s protagonist is a twit who’s most tolerable when not opening his mouth (especially to dispense functional narration), Jolie’s angel of righteous death—slaying only the bad, never the good—is a vision of ferocious femininity to put the Carrie-Ann Mosses and Milla Jovoviches to shame. So why is she stuck playing second fiddle? Wanted habitually focuses on whiny Wesley and his turgid daddy issues at the expense of the magnetic Fox, a mistaken priority far more problematic than the familiarity of the story, special effects and performance by Freeman, whose wise-elder routine is now so routine and hackneyed that it should come equipped with a “©” symbol. Still, if Jolie doesn’t quite get the attention she rightfully deserves, at least the film’s empty, arousing thrills are quick, fierce and self-contained, and—courtesy of a fatality-filled finale—not distended by ponderous franchise aspirations.