Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wanted (Universal, Spyglass Pictures, Relativity Media, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Wanted is a 2008 thriller from Universal and its partners, Spyglass Pictures and Relativity Media, based on a series of comic books published in 2004 and created by writer Mark Millar and artist J. G. Jones. Last night my husband Charles went through our extensive backlog of recent but not current DVD’s we’ve accumulated over the years and picked out seven, from which he wanted me to pick the fare we would experience. I went for Wanted largely because the plot synopsis on — “A young man finds out his long-lost father is an assassin. When his father is murdered, the son is recruited into his father’s old organization and trained by a man named Sloan to follow in his dad’s footsteps” — made it seem like a modern-day film noir, especially since I didn’t read the synopsis too closely and thought the hero would be a police officer and his goal would be to infiltrate the assassins’ organization in an attempt to bring it down legally. In fact Wanted stemmed from a childhood fantasy about writer Millar about a comic-book world without superheroes because super-villains would have killed them all — and the original models he and Jones had in mind for how the characters should look were rapper Eminem for the central protagonist (you can’t really call him a “hero”!) and Halle Berry for the mysterious woman who recruits him to the assassination bureau, who quite frankly would have been better choices for the movie than the ones the filmmakers (director Timur Bekmambetov and writers Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan) ultimately came up with, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie. 

The opening scene shows Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy, who’s made one truly great movie — Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, in which he played the defense attorney for Mary Surratt, accused and ultimately executed for having been part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln — and appeared as the younger version of Patrick Stewart’s character in some of the X-Men films; he deserves a better fate than an endless string of movies based on comic books!) in bed dreaming a cosmic dream in which he’s an action hero vanquishing his foes in physically impossible ways. Then he wakes up in bed next to a girlfriend who can’t care less about him ­— he laconically notes that his best friend regularly has sex with her as we see the best friend doing so — and gets ready for a boring accounting job in which he’s being hounded by boss-from-hell Janice (Lorna Scott), a heavy-set woman with candy-colored hair and a big cleavage, to stop having Walter Mitty-esque fantasies and get out the long-overdue billing report already … or else. Then his father — or at least the man he thinks is his father, though there’s no indication that they ever had a parental relationship — is gunned down by a member of the Fraternity of Assassins, an organization we are supposed to believe has been in existence for 1,000 years without registering on the radar screen of normal humanity. A mystery woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie) tells Wesley that the only way he can avenge his father is to join the Fraternity, take their Assassination 101 training course (which is probably not that different from the way the CIA trains its agents) and kill his father’s killer, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) — only midway through the movie we get the predictable Big Switcheroo: Cross is Wesley’s father (we never get an explanation for who the other guy was or what Cross’s relationship to him was like), and while the long-lost-father schtick is probably as old as the ancient Greeks it’s almost certain the writing committee on this project ripped it off from Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “I am your father,” in the original Star Wars trilogy. 

It’s never made clear how the Fraternity of Assassins selects its victims or what is the central authority ordering the hits — all we learn is that the original founders a millennium ago were weavers in their spare time and the Fraternity still gives its members instructions via a code woven on cloth samples — but we are told that the current U.S. headquarters of the Fraternity (there’s an international headquarters, too) is in a converted textile mill that offers cover. There are action sequences galore, including one — a train wreck in Switzerland (at least I think it was Switzerland) in which the engineer’s precipitate action in pulling the emergency brake while the train is midway across the bridge leads to its derailment and the collapse of most of the cars off the bridge (“There go a lot of extras as collateral damage the filmmakers don’t care about,” I rather grimly joked), and the big confrontation between Cross and Wesley in which Cross reveals he’s Wesley’s real father takes place while they’re both suspended inside a railroad car that’s about to fall in the abyss … though they both survive. Indeed, the most irritating thing about Wanted is that, though the screenwriters eliminated any supernatural or super-powerful characters from the plot, they also constructed their story with a cheery indifference to the normal laws of physics: we see bullets turn and change course in mid-air (apparently we’re supposed to believe that among the skills the Fraternity teaches its trainees is to make bullets bend in mid-air), we see bullets hit each other in space and knock each other out, we see characters take tumbles over precipices and live to tell the tale with no account of how that happened; and indeed there are so many lapses from conventional reality that I expected the entire film to turn out to be a dream at the end, The Wizard of Oz-style, perhaps with a tag borrowed from Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window in which, having dreamed himself into a film noir situation involving Joan Bennett as a femme fatale, Edward G. Robinson sees a girl who looks just like her and runs away, I would have delighted in seeing the waking Wesley encounter Angelina Jolie as a new worker in his office and get away from her as fast as he could. 

The film’s big switcheroo in the middle at least means that Morgan Freeman as Sloan, the head of training at Fraternity Central and the one who first orders Wesley trained as an assassin and then receives an order to kill him, starts out as his usual éminence noir character and ends up a villain, determined to take over the Fraternity and offer its services to the highest bidder. As I noted above, it’s not all that clear who was selecting the victims before that, or why — though there’s a hint that the writers intended something of a religious metaphor and the Fraternity members are simply the instruments of fate, killing people who are about to die (or are destined to die) anyway. Our biggest clue in that direction is when Sloan, at the film’s final climax, orders Fox to shoot Wesley and says, “Let us take our Fraternity of assassins to heights reserved only for the gods of men! You choose.” (She chooses, in yet another one of this film’s incredibly annoying contraventions of the laws of physics, to shoot a bullet that spirals around the room and kills everyone there except Wesley, including herself.) Wanted is a frustrating movie that wastes an excellent cast and a potentially compelling premise (though from what I’ve read about the original comics, which is only the Wikipedia page about them, they may have been even sillier: among the super-villains the screenwriters decided to omit was “Shithead, a monster made with the feces of 666 of the most evil people on Earth, including Hitler”), and when Wesley asked at the end of the movie the rhetorical question, “What the fuck have you done lately?,” I couldn’t resist the answer, “Well, I just wasted two hours of my life watching a really stupid movie.” Indeed, this is the sort of film that seems to invite Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style jokes; when Wesley asked Angelina Jolie’s character if she’d ever done anything normal, I was tempted to say, “Well, I tried marrying Brad Pitt, but that didn’t work out … ”