Director puts new spin on action formula

At the beginning of “Wanted,” one of the world’s deadliest assassins dents a steel elevator with his heel as he propels himself outside the shaft at supersonic speed before leaping off the skyscraper to another rooftop. While the scene emphasizes the landing, the attention paid to the takeoff reveals what director Timur Bekmambetov is all about.

The Kazakh-born helmer is a stickler for detail. And Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ 2004 graphic novel “Wanted” gave him an adventure with details woven into its fabric. Literally.

“Wanted” follows Wesley Gibson, a panicky 25-year-old accountant living a miserable existence in Chicago with an unfaithful girlfriend and a boss from hell. He leaves that life behind when he’s recruited by the Fraternity, an ancient league of supersensory assassins who seek to restore balance to the world by carrying out coded orders woven into the threads of the Loom of Fate.

In 2004, producer Marc Platt (“Legally Blonde”) optioned the series of six comic books and lobbied Universal to hire Bekmambetov, whose vampire thrillers “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” were huge hits in Russia. “The comic is dark and edgy but it also has an ironic, comedic tone beneath its violent action,” says Platt. “Timur’s visual style and unique sensibility seemed compatible with the material.”

Bekmambetov sparked to the premise, he says, “because it’s a drama pretending to be fantasy. Part of what makes the film unique is its mix of genres. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a drama, a melodrama. Every scene, we change genres and that’s why our movie is different.”

When Universal expressed reservations about handing a potentially lucrative action franchise to a filmmaker who had never made an English-language film, much less a big-budget Hollywood tentpole, Platt convinced the studio that he could “create an environment that would allow Timur to be himself as a filmmaker and exercise his creative muscles,” he says. “We wanted to fit the broad structure of the studio system of filmmaking around Timur to make him more comfortable.”

Bekmambetov, an established auteur in Russia, put his faith in Platt; they developed the story together with writers Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Platt pushed the studio to hire the director’s Russian visual effects company, Bazelevs.

“Marc was very helpful to me,” says the director. “He’s the first Hollywood producer I’ve worked with. Working within another culture, I needed translators, so Marc was like my eyes. It created a good atmosphere to do something unusual and interesting. You always hear stories about how the studio is a monster that imprisons creative people, but that’s just a negative stereotype. I had freedom and support and much more resources.”

After Angelina Jolie signed on for a $15-million payday as a superstar assassin, the movie was a go. “Angelina was helpful and honestly, this movie happened because of her,” says Bekmambetov. “Not only is she beautiful, determined, focused, smart and athletic, but she’s also feminine and charming. She was also tough as nails during the creative process.”

Platt and Bakmambetov wanted quiet everyman James McAvoy to play Wesley and screen-tested him a year before the studio saw “Atonement.” (This is McAvoy’s third go-round with an American accent.) “He brings a reality and truthfulness to the character and to the character’s transformation both physically and emotionally,” says Platt. “He’s not a superstar action hero. He’s an everyday guy. And hopefully that makes for a more satisfying journey.”

“‘Wanted’ is about the transformation of Wesley’s character,” says Bekmambetov. “James told us at the beginning that he would spend a lot of time building himself up. By the time he finished the movie, he was a different person than when he started. He did a lot of the stunt work himself.”

The director also quelled his anxiety by importing some of his Russian team, including his costume-designer wife and “Night Watch” star Konstantin Khabensky, who portrays a villain known as the Exterminator. “I cannot make a movie without him,” says Bekmambetov. “He’s a great actor who brings a lot of energy and charm to the set. He’s always making jokes, like a clown, but he’s also like a talisman for me.”

Universal had initially slated “Wanted” for March release, but decided that the pic was robust enough to take on the summer blockbusters. “Wanted” is also the summer’s only hard-R actioner.

The film’s distinctive style has brooked comparison to another R-rated summer movie, “The Matrix,” bu Platt demurs. “The visual language, style of storytelling, depiction of characters and violence are unique and singular to Timur,” he says.

 “Wanted” is “very different” from “The Matrix,” insists Bekmambetov. “The foundation of this movie is the drama of the characters and the story. All the genre elements, like curving bullets, flying people, fast cars and the huge train hanging between two rocks, those are all interchangeable. They are just an extension of the drama, a way to present and explore the characters and their special abilities. The story is really about the discovery of truth and finding yourself. The whole movie is ironic — but that’s how I like to do things.”

Up next, Platt and Bekmambetov will each produce a movie with roughly the same title. Platt is prepping the Rob Marshall musical “Nine” with Daniel Day-Lewis, while Bekmambetov is a producer on “9,” an animated film directed by Shane Acker. Bekmambetov says he isn’t yet ready to direct “Twilight Watch,” the third and final installment in his franchise. “It was a long time ago, and now I feel it may be difficult to go back. For now I don’t know how or when it will happen.”

Meanwhile, Bekmambetov and Platt await boxoffice results. They’re already talking story on a “Wanted” sequel. “Great characters often yield franchises,” says Platt, “because the audience wants to come back and take another ride with them. ‘Wanted’ is not one of those films you walk out of and don’t remember who the director was. You will know when you leave this movie it has been made by Timur Bekmambetov.”

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