Look at the films of Timur Bekmambetov, and certain common threads emerge. Characters whose disarmingly shabby ordinariness conceals great inner powers even from themselves. An imaginative use of special effects that pushes everyday objects and recognisable genre elements into the realm of the surreal. A deep vein of gallow’s humour. And strong moral underpinnings that anchor all the wild fantasy to very human realities.
These qualities served the director well in Night Watch (2004) and its sequel Day Watch (2006) – and now he brings them over to his first English-language film Wanted, based on the series of comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. It is a real humdinger of a summer movie, sleeker and faster than its current blockbuster rivals, and smarter to boot.
Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) hates his life. A drone in a dull office job, he is chewed out every day by his annoying boss (Lorna Scott), cheated on by his girlfriend (Kirsten Hager) with his best friend, and still haunted by the thought that his own father walked out on him when he was just a baby. But then one evening, while in a drugstore purchasing pills for anxiety, Wesley finds himself being rescued from a vicious gunfight by the seductive, physics-defying Fox (Angelina Jolie).
She introduces Wesley to the Fraternity, a thousand-year-old guild of weaver-assassins who use their special skills to correct imbalances in the world order, according to instructions that they decipher from the Loom of Fate. The Fraternity’s leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) informs Wesley that he has inherited time-slowing powers and super-agility from his father, a talented Fraternity member who was recently assassinated by the renegade Cross (Thomas Kretschmann). But in order truly to follow in his father’s footsteps Wesley must learn to forge his own destiny…
The Wachowskis’ The Matrix may since have been let down by both its own sequels and an endless parade of inferior imitators, but when it was first released in 1999, there was nothing else in existence that looked anything like it, and its use of tiled stills and ‘bullet time’ effects changed the face of action cinema forever. If Wanted owes something to The Matrix in both the basic outline of its plot (everyday schlub has the wool lifted from his eyes) and in its heavily stylised gunplay, Bekmambetov pays back the debt with interest, taking the Wachowskis’ original bag of visual tricks to a whole new level.
Here individual bullets are traced backwards along their impossibly curving trajectories from fatal impact to distant barrel. Here assassinations are carried out from cars flipping over in slow motion. Here pounding mle combat takes place in rapidly derailing trains.
These kinetic thrills are simply breathtaking to behold while, just as importantly, McAvoy (who is a much better actor than Keanu Reeves) ensures that all the high-octane shenanigans remain grounded in a solid, believable character whose ironic, cynical perspective makes all the on-screen absurdities seem that much more acceptable. He is aided by an economic script that introduces much of its expository material by stealth, and by a sly note of humour that invites us from the start not to take things too seriously. At the same time, the film’s exploration of blind revenge, corrupted justice, and the whole notion of ‘manifest destiny’, chimes in with many of the geopolitical preoccupations of these post-9/11 times.
In short, this is an eye-goggling, grin-inducing, thought-provoking hybrid of the SF and superhero genres that, unusually, aims its guns directly at an adult audience, while deftly outshooting all the competition. It is the action flick you have always wanted.