“Wanted” devilishly ups the ante to a new level in adapting violent comics to the bigscreen. By confidently grafting nastily creative, high-tech new ways to kill people onto traditional dramatic themes involving professional assassins and family revenge, Kazakhstan-born Timur Bekmambetov assures himself the distinction of becoming the first modern director to emerge from Russia to carve a high profile in Hollywood. Relentless, in-your-face action and a classy cast led by a beefed-up James McAvoy and a heavily tatted Angelina Jolie combine to promise powerful B.O. prospects worldwide for Universal.
As the man responsible for the two highest-grossing films in Russian history, “Night Watch” and its sequel “Day Watch,” Bekmambetov, a helmer with muscular visual skills akin to those of top commercials directors, was a good bet to supply the desired edge and a distinctive flavor to this type of genre fare. Often fruitfully and sometimes gratuitously, he gooses every shot with some extra jolt or manipulation, be it an abrupt change in camera speed, skip-framing, odd pulsation or just good, old-fashioned rack focus. He can even use the leading character’s accelerated metabolism as a plausible excuse to create a visual correlative in the film’s often breathless rhythms.
Like it or not, “Wanted” pretty much slams you to the back of your chair from the outset and scarcely lets up for the duration.
Opening action sequence provides a pretty good indication of what’s in store in this adaptation of the popular cult comics created by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones: After deftly avoiding assassination in his office in a Chicago skyscraper, the formidable-looking Mr. X (David Patrick O’Hara) leaps through glass and across the void to the roof of the building across the way, only to finally lose a gun battle fought with bullets that follow curved trajectories when fired by shooters who know what they’re doing.
Next day, put-upon account manager Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is abruptly informed by a mysterious woman (Jolie) standing in a supermarket line that his father, one of the all-time great assassins, died yesterday. Suddenly, this woman, whose name aptly happens to be Fox, is in a firefight with Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), the man who killed dear old dad — a duel that continues in insanely speeding vehicles on the Chitown streets. That’s two hyperventilated action sequences in the first 25 minutes.
Fox takes Wesley to the fortress-like headquarters of the Fraternity, where a nattily attired Morgan Freeman, as the org’s boss, Sloan, explains how the 1,000-year-old institution takes it upon itself to eliminate people who are fated to die for reasons dictated by hidden patterns in textiles woven at the factory. Learning that this is as good a reason as any to bump off people he doesn’t know, Wesley undergoes training — repeatedly getting the living crap beaten out of him by menacing guys with names like the Repairman, the Butcher and the Exterminator — in brutally sadistic interludes designed to make the wimpy loser tough enough to take on the rogue former Fraternity brother Cross.
Once he’s graduated by perfecting the art of the bending bullet, Wesley achieves his rite of passage to ultimate manhood — defined as being able to kill without hesitation or remorse. Wesley’s transformation, from one-time pushover to indestructible powerhouse, is not unlike that of any number of Marvel heroes,although the context and implications here are much darker than in the worlds of Spider-Man and his brethren.
Desperate to go toe-to-toe with Cross, Wesley heads to Europe and the birthplace of the Fraternity, where, under duress, its monkish leader (Terence Stamp) arranges a rendezvous aboard a train. This spectacularly outlandish action sequence, which parallels multiple earlier scenes of Wesley and Fox training on top of Chicago’s El, would seem designed to cap things off. But as concocted by scripters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who collaborated on “3:10 to Yuma” and “2 Fast 2 Furious”) and Chris Morgan (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”), there are multiple betrayals, avenged misdeeds and literal mind-blowing still to come in a film that never lets up.
The diminutive McAvoy might have seemed an unexpected choice for this sort of kickass role, but the always inventive thesp proves he’s got a bit of Russell Crowe in him as he brandishes an impressive amount of muscle, grit and anger. He may be one of those rare actors who can do just about anything. Fox is a perfect role for Jolie, a sort of fancified extension of her Mrs. Smith that allows her to be a tough babe and also gently send up the caricature. While intoning the dialogue with his usual elan, Freeman gets to be nastier than usual as the big boss in charge of all the secrets. Most of the supporting thesps register strongly on the basis of being memorable physical types.
Bekmambetov’s Russian films showed he knows how to achieve the visceral effects he wants, and the vastly greater means at his disposal here provide him with the tools to supercharge his work; he will have his pick of projects now. He and his highly pro team of lenser Mitchell Amundsen, production designer John Myhre, editor David Brenner and myriad hands in the effects, makeup, stunt, location and other departments manage a consistent blend of live-action with computer effects, and Prague studio work with Chicago and New York street shooting. As if the picture needed it, Danny Elfman’s score provides additional propulsion.