A scrawny, self-loathing office drone gets plucked from his humdrum existence by a steely, gun-wielding super babe, is mentored by a Zen warrior with limitless intelligence but limited patience, then endures harsh physical training to prepare for a deadly mission only he can complete.
What sounds an awful lot like The Matrix is actually Wanted, an adaptation of Mark Millar's 2004 comic book miniseries by style-conscious Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov. His name may ring a bell with adventurous moviegoers who sampled his frenzied vampire thriller Night Watch and its muddled sequel, Day Watch. And though it's unlikely Bekmambetov will become a household name once Wanted explodes on the scene, a wider audience certainly will become more familiar with the director's uniquely kinetic aesthetics.
James McAvoy, star of last year's romantic Oscar bait Atonement, suppresses his thick Scottish accent to play Wesley, an American nobody with serious girl troubles. His boss (Lorna Scott), a boorish walrus of a woman, makes it her business to berate Wesley's every decision. His girlfriend (Kristen Hager) thinks so little of Wesley that she barely hides the fact she's sleeping with his best friend. So why would Wesley trust the pouty-lipped temptress (Angelina Jolie) who tells him he's the latest in a long line of assassins sworn to a secret society dubbed the Fraternity?
The bullets, bodies, blood droplets, cars, trucks, and trains start flying before Wesley or I can answer that question. Jolie's character, properly named Fox, barely finishes her introduction before she and Wesley are attacked by Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), a rival assassin who reportedly offed Wesley's absentee father (David O'Hara). Following a memorably noisy car chase that's highlighted by Jolie turning her body into a gorgeously lethal hood ornament, Wanted fills us in on the Fraternity's mythology and mission statement.
Morgan Freeman plays Morpheus... uh, Sloan, head of the Fraternity and Wesley's new supervisor. We meet various Fraternity members blessed with succinct names like Gunsmith (Common), the Exterminator (Konstantin Khabensky), and the Repairman (Marc Warren), who heals broken bones and gaping wounds with a gooey white-blood-cell bath that looks like melted marshmallows and candle wax. Finally, Wesley learns of his ultimate purpose: Avenge his father's death by executing Cross.
Detractors will argue that Bekmambetov's treatment of Millar's material bears more than a passing resemblance to Matrix, and it's tough to disagree. Beyond the recruitment and training of a Neo-esque anti-hero, the film relies on a reality-bending technique that allows bullets to curve their path on the whim of the person firing the gun. Factor in the gratuitous fire fights, gravity-altering choreography, and bombastic action sequences, and Wanted starts to feel like the Grand Theft Auto video game ballooned to theatrical proportions.
But there are more than enough original thrills to distance Wanted from its assorted predecessors. Bekmambetov brings a bizarre and often morbid take to action violence -- witness the bloody tooth that flies through the air after Wesley smashes his cheating friend in the mouth with a keyboard -- and that profane tactic fits this cast as they play against type.
After embodying a benevolent God in various comedies, Freeman goes ice cold as a devilish killer. McAvoy bulks up physically, then backs up that build with a tough-guy attitude. His final line will have you pumping a fist as you exit the theater. But it's Jolie, in particular, who finds menace and sensuality in her otherwise inadequately written role. Best known off-screen as a harbinger of peace in impoverished nations and serial mom, the actress reminds us how sexy she can look while hanging off the hood of a sports car and pointing a sawed-off shotgun at her pursuing enemy. Now that's range.
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