Downtrodden office drone Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is shaken out of his dull life by Fox (Jolie), a super-assassin who reveals that he is heir to the skills of a master hitman and has a predestined place in the Fraternity, a secret society who preserve civilisation through murder.
Many action movies, comic books and geek-appeal TV shows are fantasies of empowerment. Protagonists from Luke Skywalker through Peter Parker and Buffy Summers to Harry Potter are mistaken for dullards by everyone in their lives. They are whisked out of their ruts by magical mentors, who induct them into secret universes where they inherit a legacy of heroism (along with an arch-enemy or two), can take their pick of the cool toys (mostly fast vehicles and big weapons) and get to marry (or at least cop-off with) the princess or prince of their choice. Wanted fits that template, but, like the Mark Millar-J. G. Jones comic books on which it is based, takes things further, treading a tricky path between ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Here, a whiny loser gets access to sports cars, guns that shoot round corners and a tattooed Angelina Jolie, and takes his place in a battle between good and evil without necessarily caring about the body count. Our hero, Wesley (James McAvoy), endures arduous training which brings out his latent near-superhuman abilities, and executes his first missions. However, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), a Fraternity renegade, is out to eliminate him, and Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the order’s master, keeps back vital information about Wesley’s father and his own plans.
The comic was set against a parody of DC’s universe, which became our own miserable world when analogues of Lex Luthor, The Joker, Fu Manchu, Catwoman and every other villain in popular literature clubbed together to get rid of the heroes and remake it in their own image. Audiences who whined that Batman Returns was ‘too dark’ or Hulk ‘too intelligent’ are clearly not ready for anything that grim, so this clever adaptation dispenses with the alien robots, living piles of shit, and killer Bizarro. Instead, the backstory is an equally complex, surprisingly satisfying secret history which seems a logical growth from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch. A thousand years ago, an order of weavers began to receive coded messages indicating targets to eliminate for the good of humanity, and now their descendants are the best, apparently most ethical, assassins in the world.
Bekmambetov’s Watch films competed with Hollywood and Hong Kong in their imaginative action scenes. Here, with an American studio budget, he has as much destructive fun as his hero - we get fights, chases, crashes, murders and assaults involving flipped-over sports cars, speeding trains, skyscrapers, and a castle. Unlike many American action filmmakers, Bekmambetov understands pacing and escalation: set-pieces build in intensity, and each sequence is filled with inventive gags or gimmicks - like the broken letters that spell out a pithy resignation message when Wesley breaks his keyboard on the face of the best friend who is boffing his girlfriend. Since this isn’t bidding for a PG-13 certificate, it can deliver the gruesome payoffs to its fights, hinting at the comic’s uncomfortable suggestion that escapism is merely a licence to become monstrous.
McAvoy, boyishly charming and occasionally scary, carries off a tricky role - growing the hero’s character to match his bullet-curving and knife-fighting skills - and proves he can hold his own in ‘proper movies’ as well as polite literary adaptations. A scarily slender Angelina Jolie is insidiously attractive as the world’s greatest (and, apparently, most limber) hit lady: she has never been more charismatic on screen - or bent into such odd positions. In a summer where even the good action films have been predictable, Wanted offers more than enough twists, turns and surprises to fool even viewers who think they know the material.
Not as dark as its source material, Wanted works exceptionally on its own terms. McAvoy crashes the A-list, Jolie finally gets to be as big a star on screen as she has been in print, and Bekmambetov proves the most exciting action-oriented emigré since John Woo.