OVERRATED: Wanted (2008)

Wanted (Germany/ Russia/ USA, 2008)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp

Angelina Jolie's career is as compellingly fractured as many of the characters she has played at her best. She has always been in her element inhabiting individuals who are in some way damaged, conflicted, morally ambiguous or self-doubting, something which is evident in works as massively diverse as Hackers, Girl, Interrupted and A Mighty Heart. Roles like this are a challenge to the image of Jolie which sells glossy magazines and generates online hits; they are roles where her talent makes the headlines, rather than her lips, her husband, or her leg at an award ceremony.
Against this series of impressive peaks, there are the multiple, incredibly mainstream troughs in Jolie's career where she has pandered to her image and taken roles that rely partly or solely on her looks. Given that she commands sufficient star power in Hollywood to have been given the chance to direct on three occasions, you can't be blamed for wishing she didn't choose a little more selectively. Wanted is one of the more bearably forgettable troughs, being unintentionally hilarious in parts and more visually engaging than the Tomb Raider series which made her a global star.
It is surprisingly difficult to make a grounded and interesting action thriller which is based on either a comic book or its marginally more grown-up cousin, the graphic novel. This becomes harder still when the source material is co-written by Mark Millar, whose work frequently prides itself in being lavishly over-the-top and in extremely bad taste. Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service were successful adaptations because Matthew Vaughn understood how OTT the tone and story were and embraced them with open arms, creating independently-spirited films which delivered blockbuster-quality visuals on a relatively low budget.
Wanted is inherently prevented from achieving this level of prowess on two fronts. Firstly, it is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who lacks everything that Vaughn has a director aside from a relatively short attention span. His previous works, such as Night Watch and Day Watch, are largely empty-headed and disposable, and his love of slow-motion in this film borrows far too heavily from the Wachowskis. If only he had borrowed some of The Matrix's philosophy whilst he was at it, this might have been a rather more interesting film.
The second problem that Wanted has in this regard is that it is, by its very nature, not independently-spirited. It's the product of a Hollywood system which now regards anything faintly related to comics as a bottomless pit to mine for potential franchises. In order to set up a potential series - a sequel is currently in development hell - the film has had to water down a lot of the edgier, more candidly bad-taste qualities which Millar and J. G. Jones' original miniseries possesed. What in Vaughn's hands could have been enjoyably ridiculous - kind of Flash Gordon on speed - is instead as tediously generic as a Jason Statham film.
The departures which Wanted makes from its source material are so vast in places that it should not really be considered an adaptation at all. All adaptations have to reposition or restructure things in order to translate them into the visual language of cinema, but Wanted takes as many liberties with the comics as U-571 did with the history of World War II. Ironically, the level of hackery in the script is so blatent that you don't actually need to be a fan of Millar's work to always spot where the changes has been made.
In the original miniseries the Fraternity was not a generic order of assassins which killed whoever they pleased (or were told to - we'll get to that). They were an army of supervillains who attacked superheroes and either killed them or brainwashed them into going after the people they were supposed to be protecting. Millar has always had a knack for subverting aspects of the comic universe with gleeful and contemptuous abandon; for every time he has overstepped the mark, in whatever fashion, his hatred of convention is something to be admired.
What we get in Wanted, by contrast, is a much more standard story about a relative nobody who discovers that his insecurities about the world around him disguise amazing powers, which he can manipulate and which allow him to be manipulated by others. If Neo from The Matrix was the embodiment of every average Joe endowed with special powers, from The Karate Kid to Warriors of Virtue, then Wesley is simply Neo but with panic attacks - and played by a better actor. The sub-bullet time visuals and recurring image of bullets and gun further reinforce the film's derivative nature; all you'd need is some leather jackets and putting Jolie in a latex catsuit and The Matrix rip-off would be complete.
But for all the disappointment that a film presents as an adaptation, the real jump-the-shark moment comes when the loom of fate is introduced. Because the film has diluted Millar's humour so much, mistaking dark comedy for general nastiness, it takes on a portentous tone in which its candidly comic-book moments are presented like excerpts from a serious drama. The loom of fate - which isn't in the original series - is presented as something of great significance which should be treated reverentially. But anyone who doesn't snigger or chuckle when they first see it is either a liar or wasn't engrossed enough in the plot to notice its silliness.
The sad thing is that, in the right hands, even something as silly as the loom of fate could have worked. The oracle in The Matrix trilogy didn't always make the greatest sense, but the Wachowskis at least tried to make her gift of foresight appear significant to what was unfolding. Vaughn or a more intellectually-minded director could have made it a symbol of oppression and played up the idea of the perfect system turning on itself a lot more. It could have been a rival of the precogs in Minority Report, another lose adaptation of a well-regarded work.
Equally, the idea of a rookie who turns on the people who trained him is an age-old trope that can be handled with dexterity. Batman Begins is a perfect example, with Bruce Wayne's rejection of Ra's al Ghul's nihilism early in the film playing just as much a part in the genesis of Batman as the death of Wayne's parents or his fall into the cave. But Wanted is far too interested in loud, empty spectacle to even consider approaching these tropes in an inventive way. It's too afraid that if it stops for more than ten seconds, its predominantly male, teenage target market will get bored, and so its pace never lets up for long enough to let us to think about anything we are seeing.
All that distinguishes Wanted in this regard is an unwelcome nastiness which steadily percolates through and turns the film into a revenge thriller. There's nothing on the level of the torture scene in Taken from the same year, insofar as the film doesn't try to make us think that the Fraternity's often reprehensible actions can be entirely justified on a moral level. But the combination of the final act and all the battering that James McAvoy takes beforehand all leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth.
In the midst of all this disappointment, it is possible to tolerate Wanted as a piece of utter tosh. It is better directed than the Tomb Raider films (which admittedly isn't very hard) and the sheer ridiculousness of some of its concepts are memorable in their own right (no, curving bullets isn't possible - Mythbusters proved it). Neither Jolie nor McAvoy come out of it very well, both being utterly one-note and superficial, but they are at least more charismatic than their counterparts in Watchmen. And unlike Watchmen, the tone is at least consistent, even if it's completely misjudged.
Wanted is a dull, empty disappointment which fails either to do justice to its source material or provide much genuine entertainment outside of it. The performances are rote, the script is largely bereft of wit (with most laughs being unintentional), the premise is far too generic and the visuals are too derivative to hold our attention. As a leave-your-brain-at-the-door action movie, it's watchable but unmemorable, and serves as proof that Jolie can and should do so much better.


For more on Angelina Jolie's career, check out my WhatCulture! article here.

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