Theoretically, Wanted is the most awesome movie ever. According to my dog-eared copy of Summer Action Movies: Theory and Practice (eds. Joel Silver & Jerry Bruckheimer), a midsummer movie featuring multiple slow-motion gunfights, an epic train mangling, a secretive sect of Armani-clad assassins, a half-naked Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman dropping Samuel Jackson–style f-bombs, and an ancient loom that controls human destiny is virtually guaranteed both to make Michael Bay jealous and achieve blockbuster nirvana — that tingling, euphoric state in which you lose all cognitive function and find yourself unable to separate the various sensations caused by onscreen fireballs, surround-sound cannon booms, and the slushy mixture of Diet Coke and buttery-flavor popcorn you’ve just spilled into your lap. If executed correctly, you emerge into the summer sun two hours later, bleary-eyed and zombie-like, wiping the drool from your face and high-fiving your companion, repeating focus-grouped catch phrases and exclaiming your joy at having paid ten dollars to be jolted into a semi-vegetative state. During America’s hot months, the shorthand for this sort of experience is “entertainment.”
Wanted doesn’t quite live up to its theoretical awesomeness, but it comes close. James McAvoy plays Wesley Gibson, a cubicle-bound office drone who is frustrated by his life, his job, his girlfriend, and has, we can assume, seen Fight Club far too many times. One day, while buying anxiety meds at a drug store, he’s picked up by a professional assassin in slinky attire, named — appropriately — Fox (Angelina Jolie). A shootout and car chase later, he’s been inducted into a fraternity of super assassins — led by Morgan Freeman’s spiffily attired Sloane (apparently, world-class killers are big on one-word names) — all of whom can alter their biorhythms in such a way that make everything around them look very, very… cool.
Following this implausible start, the story remains consistently loony, or perhaps that should be loom-y. Eventually, you see, we find out that everything is controlled by the Loom of Fate. That’s right, a loom. A secret, ancient, powerful loom, that looks very impressive and fate-controlling, to be sure . . . for a loom. Traditionally used for making tapestries, this one spits out binary code. Sloane translates the code into the names of targets. Then people die. If you presented this idea to most normal people, you’d be told you were crazy. Show it to a Hollywood producer, though, and you get a million dollars for the global rights. The only bit of relief one can extract from this hard stone of nonsense is that none of the assassins ever think to say “Death is looming.”
If slush-brained stylishness is what you crave, Wanted’s got it by the glop. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be jonesing for one of those anxiety pills yourself. Everything on screen seems to be punctuated with exclamation marks. What noise! What flash! What curves! Whatever! Continual bursts of static are necessary, of course, to ensure that your brain remains appropriately gooey throughout. Otherwise you might begin to ask questions — tough questions, like: Why is Morgan Freeman taking orders from a loom? But the film’s pyrotechnical pounding ensures you will not question, only obey. Like a ferocious drill sergeant, it exists to distract you, to pummel you, to weaken your will. Eventually, everyone gives.
The man behind the mayhem is director Timur Bekmambetov. Bekmambetov specializes in adrenal frenzy. Previously he directed Russia’s two biggest films — the ludicrous but thoroughly entertaining Night Watch and Day Watch. He’s a speed freak with a manic streak; by now, his fetishes are clear: sports cars, bullets, trains, and slow-motion — preferably all of them at once. He’s fond of guns too; several of his characters seem to spend more time shooting than speaking (understandable, perhaps; as this is his first English production). Bekmambetov doesn’t care much for the constraints of reality, though. Neither space nor time concern him much; he’s equally apathetic about all four dimensions.
That is, unless those dimensions belong to Angelina Jolie, whom he films with obvious delight. As Gibson’s savior and mentor, she’s catlike — lithe, aloof, mysterious, probably not trustworthy. McAvoy blabbers too much — he comes across as a bit of a whiner, as he did in The Last King of Scotland — which makes Jolie’s silence even more entrancing. Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, plays everything big and hammy, like Al Pacino in a courtroom.
The film suffers from a general surplus of attitude — the film’s end actually finds McAvoy swearing at the audience — and the protagonist’s combo of insecurity and entitlement doesn’t work nearly as well as, say, Keanu Reeve’s surfer Zen routine in The Matrix. And the spastic fun of it all is sometimes marred by overly gruesome violence. Having lost all connection to reality, it can’t discern its own grisliness. A splatter here, a splatter there — blood and guts merely provide another layer of art-directed gibberish. In the Old West, signs used to read, Wanted: Dead or Alive; the point being that either state is fine. It might do to post those signs in the hallways of theaters showing this film: It clearly doesn’t care about life or death much itself. But then, that’s what sensory-sacking summer blockbusters do — they don’t care, they don’t want to care, and they teach you not to care, either.