Angelina Jolie is packing heat, and she’s going to show James McAvoy how to load a phallic pistol and shoot his wad. What’s not to like? Wanted is what I’d call a guilty pleasure. Translation: It’s trash, but I love it anyway. Brutal, sexy, built to thrill and minus a scintilla of redeeming social value, the movie — based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones — explodes like summer fireworks. And the detonator is Timur Bekmambetov, a Kazakhstan-born director whose Night Watch and Day Watch are huge hits in Russia and who is determined to hit Hollywood with the same pizzazz. Not a timid soul, Bekmambetov, who cut his teeth in the ad game, knows how to get a story going without pesky preliminaries.
In the first scene, a professional assassin kills a few dozen people and then goes down in a hail of bullets. Cut to office drone Wesley Gibson (McAvoy), who is told that the dead assassin is his lost daddy and that Wesley, who takes pills to calm his nerves, has killing in his DNA. Jolie plays Fox (cool name), the gun-crazy babe who brings Wesley to Sloan (Morgan Freeman at his wiliest), the leader of a secret, centuries-old fraternity of assassins who kill bad guys on the orders of the Loom of Fate (don’t ask). Sloan tells Wesley he has inherited sensory powers. Heard of curveballs? Wesley can shoot curve bullets, a handy trick if you want to exact vengeance on the man (Thomas Kretschmann) who maybe killed your father. First, Wesley must go to assassin boot camp under the sadistic tutelage of Fox, the Gunsmith (Common rocks the role hard) and other members of the league, who beat him bloody and then heal his wounds by dipping him in a tub of ice.
Hell couldn’t freeze over the logic gaps. But Jolie — in between heavy dramatic roles in A Mighty Heart and Changeling — comes on as pure sizzle as a tattooed hottie who motors around Chicago (OK, it was shot in Prague), firing away with a scary, steel-eyed squint. She even lays a wet one on Wesley to make his cheating girlfriend jealous. Dream, dudes, dream.
And McAvoy is dynamite. The Scottish actor, in a 180-degree spin from the period elegance of Atonement, is having a ball digging into the role of an American geek aching to bust loose. It’s a kick to see him go ballistic on the office workers who humiliated him. But the film’s real dramatic energy comes from watching Wesley develop into a tight, muscled killing machine who can’t quite shed his scruples.
Bekmambetov is clearly fucking with Hollywood action conventions. And in scenes such as Wesley stalking a target from the top of a speeding train, he beats the experts at their own pulse-pounding bag of tricks. There’s passion as well as pow in Bekmambetov’s game plan. Michael Bay, eat your heart out.