'Wanted' crams in magnificent mayhem

The Baltimore Sun

Wanted "goes postal" with wireless speed.

It's a tall tale of skyscraper proportions: the gory story of a put-upon accountant who discovers that he's the son of a top assassin in a secret world of super-assassins. The film pulls you by the scruff of the neck and makes you thankful for it. It releases every ounce of pent-up frustration and rage in your body.

The Russian director, Timur Bekmambetov, gives the action scenes full-frontal bravura. He roots the antihero's adventures in scabrous reality and then bends it as if with his arms, neck and teeth. He mixes real stunts and computer-generated imagery so vividly that even the CGI seems to have fingerprints, creases and bite marks.

In scene after scene, hit men and hit women use their supercharged adrenaline to fuel amazing leaps across the canyons between skyscrapers, atop city traffic or above an elevated train bridge. They wind their bullets' trajectory around any person or thing that stands between them and their targets.

As he did when he rose to international fame with the splashy vampire horror/sci-fi of Night Watch and Day Watch, Bekmambetov creates a convincing, scuzzy-colorful alternate world. The superpowers of these super-antiheroes click because they're also building blocks of the plot. These assassins calculate each other's freaky, exciting abilities with the exactness of baseball statisticians, then they use these calculations to erect tense and thrilling traps.

What's bleakly hilarious about the whole movie is that Bekmambetov directs the nonaction scenes just as hyperbolically. When young, slight Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) confronts the in-his-face officiousness of his boss or the barely contained smugness of his best friend (who is bedding Gibson's girlfriend), you feel a weird visceral malaise.

You want to shake Gibson by the shoulders, slap him on both sides of his head, flush the pills he's taking for panic attacks (the medication actually makes him numb) and tell him to be a man. Luckily, it doesn't take long for Angelina Jolie's svelte assassin, Fox, to do something even better.

She snatches Gibson from obscurity and brings him into the Fraternity, an artisan's guild of weavers - and hit men. For a millennium or so, it has been guarding the "Loom of Fate," which weaves the names of evildoers targeted for death into a binary code contained in flaws within the fabric. Gibson soon learns that his panic attacks are spikes of adrenaline that make his heart pump at 400 beats a minute and empower him to run like the Flash, leap like the Thing, shoot like Annie Oakley and drive like a NASCAR champ - with seemingly telekinetic powers over cars and ammo.

The Fraternity tells him that he's the son of its late best assassin, and that his mission is to eliminate his father's killer. McAvoy makes you root for his victories over his own personal oppressors (the list contains some surprises) and his father's enemies. He isn't a pure soul, but you feel he's out for justice, not just vengeance. The makers of Wanted understand the wish-fulfillment dynamics of socially irresponsible fantasy: We want Gibson to opt out of his own world and become the top gun in his new one precisely because he is a man of worth, substance and feeling. The question is, can he stay a man of worth, substance and feeling if he's a ruthless executioner?

The movie revels in absurdity without turning into camp; as the Fraternity's leader, Sloan (an homage to the agency boss in TV's Alias), Morgan Freeman explains the Fraternity's rigamarole with a sage omniscience that's uproarious in its very calm. And Jolie gets to show what a jolly performer she can be when she's enjoying herself. She knows that less is more when it comes to playing femme fatales; her emotion is pointed yet minimal, her flesh revealed in peek-a-boo fashion.

Jolie's characterization is a compendium of appraising glances and knowing half-smiles; in the middle of the mayhem, it becomes subtle and moving. But the crucial talent who makes it all work is McAvoy. He puts over the emotions at both extremes - from the minimal worminess of the oppressed office worker to the unleashed fury of a vengeance seeker - and every gradation between.

Has any young actor displayed the range that McAvoy has in movie after movie over the past few years, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last King of Scotland to Atonement and this movie? The crux of McAvoy's performance is that he plays Gibson not as a closet brutality freak but as a brutalized sensitive soul. When he joints the sadomasochistic rituals of the Fraternity, he's more like Edward Norton in Fight Club than Norton in The Incredible Hulk. In fact, when McAvoy's Gibson screams that he joins the society because "I don't know who I am," what he goes through with Jolie is similar to what Norton went through with Brad Pitt in Fight Club: a crucible of blood. His Fraternity trainers repeatedly beat and stab him to the point of death, then dunk him into an amazingly recuperative bath. The sight of Jolie's Fox emerging bare-backed from another sunken tub is even more restorative than this Spartan spa treatment.

Loosely basing their scenario on the six-issue comic-book series and graphic novel of the same name, director Bekmembatov and his screenwriters (Chris Morgan, and Michael Brandt and Derek Hass, who did the 3:10 to Yuma remake) have imagined the assassins' powers in ways that permit McAvoy's emotional input and our identification. They key the scenes to McAvoy's trepidation and delight, and build to a set of turnarounds that are breathtaking in their daring and in their unpredictable resolution. Because the filmmakers make their setup so dynamic, they can pack their movie with turns equivalent to those in an origin story and a sequel. Wanted makes you want to see a third film in the series - and see it right now.



(Universal) Starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated R for bloody violence, pervasive language and some sexuality. Time 110 minutes.

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