'Wanted': This Angelina Jolie Is Not One for the Kiddies
Friday, June 27, 2008
"Wanted," as sadistic and vulgar a "thrill ride" as will warp young minds this summer, announces its inherent absurdity and nasty attitude right off the bat. First, a screen title explains that 1,000 years ago an elite group of assassins was formed by "a clan of weavers"; a few moments later, viewers are introduced to the film's narrator and chief protagonist, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a young cog in a Chicago insurance company who is mired in smug, self-pitying snark as he heaps mental opprobrium on everyone in his orbit, from his unfaithful girlfriend to his abusive, overweight boss.
What, you may well ask, does a jerk of the 21st century have to do with a group of ancient textile manufacturers? It's all very clear in the cosmology of the comic books -- sorry, graphic novels-- on which "Wanted" is based, a cosmology invented by authors Mark Millar and J.G. Jones and given a loud, profane and, okay, occasionally very cool reinterpretation here by Russian director Timur Bekmambetov.
Those very cool passages come early on, too, first when Angelina Jolie makes a fabulously subtle entrance as a sexy assassin named Fox, and then, after a tense shootout in a drugstore where Wesley is trying to fill a prescription for anti-anxiety medication, in a terrifically staged car chase in the parking lot outside. What, you may well ask, is an earth mother and global healer of Jolie's magnitude doing in a scowling paean to death and destruction? The answer might be that this shrewd actress, who carefully molded her image in the corridors of the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, wants to remind Hollywood of her action roots in such popcorn toss-offs as "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "Lara Croft."
Still, if there were an Oscar for best use of a lead actress's tattoos, "Wanted" would be a shoo-in. It's also long on style, swagger and testosterone; it purveys and partakes in the most visceral pleasures cinema has to offer, from that stunning car chase in which Fox effortlessly scoops Wesley into the passenger seat of her red sports car without slowing down, to a climactic train wreck that, technically speaking, is anything but. Bekmambetov has proven to be a skilled visual imagist in the dark "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" movies, and he once again creates some unforgettable tableaux, especially in the Chicago textile factory that serves as headquarters for a group of hit men (and one Fox) called the Fraternity. This grim group of shooters, who get their orders from a mystical giant loom, answers to a man named Sloan, played by Morgan Freeman in a role that, very late in the movie, calls on his best comic timing.
Actually, make that comic and profane timing: "Wanted" makes an unusually mean-spirited break from such relatively warmhearted comic book movies as "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk." Whereas those PG-13 films have provided fun for at least most of the whole family this summer, "Wanted" presents hard-R fare for viewers craving nonstop violence, foul language and the overcompensating symbolism of big guns, loud cars and fast trains. (As for the preponderance of rats, we'll leave that for Dr. Freud to sort out.)
"Wanted" will inevitably be compared to such stylized antecedents as "The Matrix," "Fight Club" and the films of John Woo, as Fox nonchalantly prostrates herself on one of those speeding locomotives or coolly teaches Wesley to shoot a pig carcass by bending the bullet like Beckham. That's precisely the problem with "Wanted" -- it's ultimately a movie about other movies, satisfied in upping an already overmannered ante rather than redefining the genre on its own terms.
Scottish by birth, McAvoy adopts the convincing, fey cadences of an entitled American kid, but even his blue-eyed charm can't make Wesley a sympathetic character. Jolie, on the other hand, embraces her role as one of contemporary cinema's great objects, using stillness, her sculptural face and her wraithlike frame for maximum, almost synthetic impact. Few actresses working today deploy themselves with such icy self-awareness. In every frame she seems to be cocking an eyebrow at the audience and saying, "I know, I can't believe I'm this beautiful, either." She brings high gloss to what is essentially a brutalizing piece of pulp trash, and if that seems to be at odds with her meticulously cultivated image off-screen, it also serves to remind viewers that Jolie is canny enough to know that the big money doesn't lie in sanctification quite yet.
Wanted (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality.