Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/17/08 21:27:29

"Stupid, but usually on purpose."
3 stars (Just Average)

And now, a brief exercise in Reading Too Much Into Things: Midway through “Wanted,” superhero assassin Angelina Jolie teaches superhero assassin-in-training James McAvoy of the importance of shutting up and following orders. Members of an ancient order of hitmen, theirs is not to reason why, Jolie’s character posits, and it is imperative to have faith in the system, killing whomever their orders say.

More importantly, hesitation over a job can have horrible consequences, as in the case of the evil man who wasn’t killed when he was supposed to be killed; he then went on and killed some more. Preemptive strike is the name of the assassins’ game.

Is “Wanted” a big fat metaphor for military life? With its “ain’t guns cool?” and “be quiet and do as you’re told” mentality, is this just an expensive, action-packed training film for the Marines? Are the preemptive strikes the hitmen deliver an analogy of sorts for the Bush Doctrine, which prefers less proof before and more gut instinct?

And if so (stay with me here, people, this’ll wrap up in a moment), what does the movie mean when we discover that someone’s been tinkering with the assignments, acting not on the faith of the system but on the personal desires of greed and cowardice? Does the metaphor still hold, making the movie a satire on, I dunno, modern day war profiteering?

I’d like to think so. I’d like to think it’s all there, because otherwise, “Wanted” is just another dumbass shoot-’em-up where we’re supposed to gawk at the awesome stunts and nifty special effects work that more or less repeat stuff we’ve already seen in “The Matrix.” “Wanted” is too likeable a film to be just some Wachowski rip-off, and if that means it’s secretly a big middle finger aimed at American military strategy, then hooray.

Probably not, though. “Wanted” is too clumsy a movie to have anything interesting going on below the surface, especially when you consider its main theme - “what have you done with your life lately?” - is spelled out so obviously in the film’s first act that you’d have to be a dolt to miss it. And just in case you are a dolt, the movie is kind enough to repeat it right at the end, in a scene where McAvoy looks right at the camera and says, well, “What have you done with your life lately?”

(I know it’s meant to be a get-up-off-your-ass rallying cry, but as played here, it’s comes off instead like a great big put-down, all those flyover-state-living-in, cubicle-job-having 9-to-5ers in the audience getting talked down to by Hollywood. What have we done lately? We just helped pay for your new Escalade, you prick.)

An adaptation of the comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, “Wanted” (penned by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan, who have three “Fast and the Furious” scripts between them) is an intentionally ludicrous actioner in which office drone Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is recruited into The Fraternity, the aforementioned ancient order of assassins. It seems Wesley’s dad was one of the best killers in the world, but he’s dead now, and it’s up to the mysterious Fox (Jolie), crispy-cool boss Sloan (Morgan Freeman), and a series of other one-name toughies to train Wesley so he can take down his father’s killer.

The superhero element comes in the form of such tricks as “curving” bullets so they shoot around corners, speeding up one’s heartbeat so time slows down, leaping across a city block, and so on. Most of the time, it works partly because of the gusto director Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch”) pumps into the action set pieces, and mostly because of McAvoy’s performance. McAvoy treats most of the film as a comedy, and in a way, he’s right - after all, if a movie can be sly enough to poke fun at twentysomethings’ extreme energy drink diets for decidedly non-extreme day jobs, surely it can also mock over-the-top action movie conventions.

And for a while, it’s all so gleefully insane that it works, lifting us up and carrying us along for the ride. But then, once the writers realize they need more of an actual plot, the movie begins to take itself too seriously, which kills the buzz of the whole thing. It’s one thing to laugh along with a live-action cartoon, but once “Wanted” starts playing it straight, we start to groan.

Consider the hackneyed moment where Wesley prowls through a ruined warehouse, screaming the bad guy’s name in hopes of luring him out. Or the shoot-out where bullets collide with each other midair, illustrating the excellent marksmanship of our hero and villain. With no wink attached, these become Just Another Action Flick Cliché, and shouldn’t this movie be more clever than that?

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