Based very loosely on the comic-book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted transforms a dark, cynical and even nihilistic story into a morally equivocating piece of action trash, directed as is his custom with maximum distracting flashiness and minimum narrative coherence by Russian wunderkind Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Day Watch). Sure, some of it looks cool—there is one heck of a nutso car chase toward the beginning—but it’s so empty and condescending and superficial that it almost makes the repellent, smug source material seem decent by comparison.
At the very least Millar and Jones’ work was more daring: While both the comic and the movie have meek office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) discover his hidden heritage as the son of a legendary killer and subsequently join the Fraternity, the secret organization that his father was part of, Wanted the film backs off from the central concept of an organization of super-criminals having taken over the world, and rids the story of all its superhero genre elements. Rather than embrace hedonism and evil, here Wesley dedicates himself to killing for the greater good, as the Fraternity take orders from, uh, a mystical loom that somehow weaves messages from fate about which bad people deserve to die.
The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (especially in the supposedly redemptive ending), and requires Wesley to twice discover (and almost instantly accept) that everything he thought he knew about his life is completely wrong. Although he’s presented as a loser finally taking charge of his life, he actually just flits from following one set of rules to following another. The underlying message of Wesley’s transformation is that growing up and being an individual requires lots and lots of killing, but the movie doesn’t have the courage to follow through on that conviction, instead setting Wesley apart from the violent badasses who recruit him by giving him a late-blooming moral conscience.
Unpacking all that subtext is not really what you’re supposed to focus on, though, and Bekmambetov does his best to distract from the ugly story by piling on the slo-mo and the absurdly elaborate action sequences. The aforementioned car chase and a climactic train derailment are probably the most impressive, but it’s hard to accept Wesley’s good-guy intentions after he doesn’t so much as bat an eye while dozens of innocent train passengers plummet to their deaths. He, after all, has the Fraternity’s magical regenerating bath to free him from all personal consequences of violence.
The story might be easier to buy if Wesley ever seemed like a real person with genuine emotions or complex thoughts. But he’s just a wish-fulfillment representative for the pasty cubicle dwellers in the audience who dream of shooting bullets around corners and hanging out with Angelina Jolie. As refreshing as it is to see Jolie in her bad-girl incarnation (rather than as a boring world-saving peacenik) as fellow assassin Fox, she basically just smirks and shoots things, one ludicrous sob-story flashback notwithstanding. And Morgan Freeman manages to play the same world-weary father figure he always does, even as a brutal killing machine.
While the filmmakers probably want you to think this movie is a cross between Fight Club and The Matrix, it’s actually a crass rip-off of the basest elements of each, without any deeper thought. While Fight Club displayed genuine despair for the impotence of the modern male, and The Matrix pondered how people would live if the entire world turned out to be an illusion, Wanted glosses over those serious questions and offers meaningless, stylized violence as the answer to everything.