“Let’s not get too serious about this film. It’s just supposed to be a fun movie, but the idea of assassinating one person to save thousands is very interesting…”—Angelina Jolie
As the summer movie-going season enters full swing, you sometimes feel a bit jaded by the plethora of action pictures that make their dominance so overwhelming felt at multiplex theaters until the fall. Which is why it is quite astonishing that this summer’s third major comic book movie adaptation, WANTED, delivers the goods in such a big way. It is an absolutely superb fantasy adventure that has the kind of vividly staged action sequences that made THE FUGITIVE such a thrill-ride! And because WANTED is a science-fiction fantasy, it can go even further than THE FUGITIVE in stretching it’s action scenes beyond the normal boundaries of audience acceptance. Plus, given the unique way Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has filmed these scenes, the result is a real adrenalin-fueled rush which leaves audiences totally spellbound. Thankfully, the movie avoids the fatal mistake of overloading us with too many thrills, so viewers have sufficient time to catch their breath between the action set pieces.
Interestingly enough, WANTED is opening a week after MONGOL, another fine film from a Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, about the young Genghis Khan. However, it appears that WANTED could actually be the first American made film by a Russian director since Sergei Eisenstein came to Hollywood in the early 30’s!
The basic idea of the picture concerns an ordinary young Chicago office worker, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), whose humdrum existence takes a dramatic turn when he is recruited into a secret society of assassins known as “The Fraternity.” All the Fraternity members have extra-sensory powers that make them lethal killers and their noble aim is to preserve balance in the world by eliminating evildoers who the “Loom of Fate” predicts will cause widespread death and destruction. (Presumably this might include several world leaders from nations dubbed by America’s current President as members of “the axis of evil.”) Of course, while The Fraternity has a noble purpose – their motto is “Kill one, to save a thousand” – it’s also a system that could easily turn into a neo-fascist organization if a rogue agent should gain control. And it seems that is exactly what may be about to happen, as Wesley’s father, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) whom Wes thinks is dead, is actually very much alive and is just such a rogue agent. He is also the most powerful assassin in The Fraternity. Which is why a senior Fraternity member named Fox (Angelina Jolie), is sent to recruit Wesley and train him so he can match his genetically inherited skills against those of his father.
Obviously, this kind of heightened fantasy can easily be dismissed by critics with a predisposition towards realistic dramas (See the review by the N. Y. Times current out of touch, Bosley Crowther-like reviewer), but Russian director Timur Bekmambetov brings such an exciting stylistic approach to the story, many of the more absurd aspects of the script are easy to overlook, particularly since it has a far more coherent screenplay than Bekmambetov’s previous low-budget Russian movies, NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH. It also has quite a surprise twist that comes just when you begin to think the picture might be turning into the typical formulaic summer action movie.
Since much of the film’s success is due to the realistic performances delivered by the actors, it would be interesting to know if director Bekmambetov is a disciple of Constantin Stanislavski’s method acting, as adapted by America’s best stage actors of the thirties, such as Morris Carnovsky and Sanford Meisner at the Group Theater and then later expounded upon by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s studio in the fifties. Whether Bekmambetov is a Stanislavski disciple or not, he certainly gets terrific performances from all of his actors, starting with James McAvoy as Wesley, followed by Angelina Jolie as Fox, (Wes’ mentor and teacher), and of course, Morgan Freeman as Sloan, the head of The Fraternity. While I don’t believe Morgan Freeman is a “method actor,” it’s interesting that he found some of the minute details Bekmambetov gave him to study to be so helpful. “Something that really impressed me,” exclaimed Freeman, “was the depth and detail that Timur has provided. There is a whole history of the Fraternity, an actual handbook with their philosophies, their codes, their legacy as weavers, weaponry, abilities and hierarchy—hardly any of which the audience will be privy to, but as actors, and for the crew, it’s a great tool for us to use when we’re building our characters and creating this world. Something like that is a luxury that doesn’t come along all that often when you accept a film role.”
Amplifying on why Freeman was such a pivotal role to cast in the film, producer Marc Platt explains, “Morgan Freeman, as both a human being and as an actor, possesses such integrity, such a strength of character that you’d believe anything he would tell you. He’s someone you would want to be your father, which in our story is very important. There is a strength and force that emanates from Morgan without him even trying and we needed someone who could articulate the mythology of the Fraternity in such a way that the audience would follow and accept it.”
For the leading role, Scottish actor James McAvoy gives us a worthy follow-up to his breakthrough performance in last years best picture nominee, ATONEMENT. Now we know that McAvoy is a truly versatile actor who can bring a great deal of depth to any kind of role, even an action hero. It appears he is now headed on a career path, not unlike that charted by Daniel Day-Lewis, where he will be in demand for both serious dramatic roles, art house movies and bigger budgeted action and science-fiction pictures.
Director Bekmambetov noted that he cast McAvoy as his lead because he wanted a “different kind of actor for Wesley… a real actor. We needed someone people would identify with, who kind of looks like an everybody. Wes changes a lot, on the inside, on the outside and James can do that—we believe in his changes. I also wanted somebody to bring humor to the story, because I think it’s impossible to create a believable fantasy world without humor. At first, Wes is skeptical and ironic, so later when he believes, the audience believes.”
Bekmanbetov also points out that McAvoy proved to be quite adept at going through the transformation from an ordinary person to a super assassin, without any overt changes in his appearance. “Early on we were trying to find some ways to make the change in Wesley, like hair or costume,” says Bekmambetov. “Then, we had a test in London before shooting and suddenly, without costume or makeup or anything, James did it himself, right in front of us. First, he was this silly boy and then, a totally different character, almost like a superman. It was unbelievable. Then we understood that we didn’t have to do anything, that James could do it himself.”
After her role in MR. AND MRS. SMITH it’s not much of surprise to see Angelina Jolie in the role of Fox, a deadly killer. Producer Marc Platt calls Jolie his “dream choice for the role,” while also noting “Fox is an incredibly powerful, strong-minded person who has overcome many obstacles in her life to become this great assassin. She becomes Wes’ mentor who watches him, trains him and helps him through the difficulties of accepting and understanding what’s happening to him.” Fox also saves Wes from death several times, arriving in her turbo-charged red Viper, just in the nick of time, as Wes is about to be run over by a big truck. She then leads Wes on a wild car chase through the streets of downtown Chicago.
Commenting on her role as Fox, Jolie says, “I like the fact that she’s quite flat, in a way; she just believes in getting on with it and doesn’t really show any emotion. However, let’s not get too serious about this film—it’s just supposed to be a fun movie—but the idea of assassinating one person to save thousands is very interesting.”
Jolie, who in real life already has several tattoos, apparently enjoyed getting even more tattoos added to her arm for the movie. “Fox has binary codes on her arm,” explains Jolie, “which is part of a reading of the fabric from the Loom of Fate. She has ‘know your rights’ in different languages and ‘toil and tears,’ which is from a Churchill speech. It’s things like that that the audience won’t notice, but giving Fox all these tattoos is symbolic of somebody who lives by a certain code of honor.”
As much of the delight in WANTED comes from it’s several surprising twists and turns, I hesitate to go into any detail about them and destroy the novelty for viewers, as no doubt many others will do, so suffice it to say, WANTED is easily this summer’s most enthralling film. At the packed screening I attended the audience applauded louder and longer than they did for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL and were way more impressed than the tepid response that greeted WALL*E.
What is even stranger is that WANTED should be opening against Pixar’s WALL*E, which many people, including myself, presumed might be one of the summer’s best movies. Unfortunately, despite it’s fabulous production design and animation, this is simply not the case. WALL* E turns out to be one of Pixar’s first major stumbles, as despite it’s outstanding animation and design, it is quite a derivative script, which is rather surprising given the level of originality Pixar has managed to achieve in it’s previous movies.
So, given the choice between the edgy and exciting WANTED, or the sentimental and child-like WALL*E, without a doubt, go to see WANTED!
WANTED (Universal Pictures, 2008, 110 minutes). Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Screenplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Story by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and J. G. Jones. Produced by Marc Platt, Jim Lemley, Jason Netter and Iain Smith. Cinematography by Mitchell Amundsen. Film editor: David Brenner. Music by Danny Elfman. Production designer: John Myhre. CAST: James McAvoy (Wesley Gibson); Angelina Jolie (Fox): Morgan Freeman (Sloan): Terence Stamp (Pekwarsky); Thomas Kretschmann (Cross).