"WANTED" straddles the line between the delightfully absurd and the merely ridiculous. As its heroes race through the city at barely subsonic speeds, they execute the kind of maneuvers that are normally performed only by 8-year-olds making "vroom vroom" noises. As digital effects approach seamless integration with live-action footage, what dazzles is not the sophistication of the technology but the audacity of the ideas, and "Wanted" has audacity to burn.
Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a nobody. Really, the nobody. He's such a blank that he doesn't even show up on Google. A scrawny, squeaky-voiced cubicle drone, he is henpecked by his girlfriend, cuckolded by his best friend and bullied by his petty tyrant boss. It's enough to make you want to kill somebody.
Wesley is filling his latest prescription for anti-anxiety meds when a sly, feline creature named Fox ( Angelina Jolie) offers him stress relief through homicide. Fox informs Wesley that he, like his father, was born into a shadowy fraternity of superpowered assassins who can flood their bodies with adrenaline at will, giving them superhuman strength, speed and the ability to shoot bullets in wicked, curving arcs.
Wesley barely has time to absorb the news when he is swept quite literally off his feet. Pursued, he is told, by the rogue fraternity member who killed his father and has designs on him, Wesley stands helplessly in the street until Fox approaches in a speeding car, which goes into a 360-degree spin, knocks a goggle-eyed Wesley into its passenger seat and speeds off without so much as a tap of the brake pedal.
At this point, Timur Bekmambetov's “Wanted” presents you with a choice. You can let yourself, like Wesley, be carried off by a slick vehicle moving at breakneck speed, or you can grumble, mutter something about the laws of physics and start checking your watch.
After a training process that consists mainly of being beaten into several kinds of hamburger (the movie, which is not for the squeamish, showcases multiple scenes of extravagant violence), Wesley is initiated by the fraternity's dapper head honcho, Sloan ( Morgan Freeman), who explains that the brotherhood was founded by a clan of weavers who saw a chance to alter the world's destiny. What turned these men of the cloth into stone-cold killers is never exactly explained.
The fraternity takes its orders from a giant contraption called the Loom of Fate, which issues the names of targets through a code embedded in its fabric. The assassins are not meant to question, merely to accept their role in some grand, unseen design. That this means killling people without any hint as to their crimes bothers Wesley only briefly.
In a movie that musters barely more than a dozen speaking parts, there are heroes and there is cannon fodder. In a thrilling face-to-face battle that sends a passenger train plummeting into a gorge, there's not even a pause to acknowledge the collateral damage of the duel between supermen. Bekmambetov savors the way a target's forehead explodes as a bullet burrows through from the back, but the slaughter of innocents fails to hold his interest.
As much fun as it is to watch Bekmambetov play with his action figures, the movie would be more engaging if he ever got under their polyurethane skin. McAvoy tries mightily to bridge the gap between wheezy nebbish and eager assassin, but there's nothing pushing him forward beyond the movie's pronounced contempt for his former life. In "Wanted's" cosmos, there are wolves and there are sheep, and the sheep are not even worth pitying.
Jolie is all wolf, kohl-eyed and coldblooded. But for all her lethal skills (and drop-dead physique), there's something approachable about her. She plays Fox with a hint of sardonic remove and a touch of down-to-earth grit, as if this pumped-up killing machine hasn't forgotten what it's like to be one of the girls. She puts her catsuit on one leg at a time.
"Wanted's" hyperkinetic antics are sometimes weighed down by a surfeit of adolescent misanthropy. But the adrenaline-overdose strategy works for viewers as well as hit men. As long as Bekmambetov keeps the pedal to the metal, you don't notice the rotten scenery outside.
"Wanted." MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In general release.