Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 05, 2008 10:13 am 
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Russian flash, Scottish soul

This gonzo visionary-pop Russian director (Day Watch, Night Watch) makes his Hollywood debut with a splashy actioner, unoriginal and even more unbelievable in its far-fetched graphic-novel-based story of a meek man turned super-hero, but striking for its finely-honed details and featuring a central character who gives things a fast-beating heart and draws you in by seeming as scared by his exploits as you'd be.

To fit an American movie mold Bekmambetov throws aside the fantasmagoric Russian vision of his sci-fi vampire spectaculars and focuses on chases and battles, but from scene to scene he maintains an exceptional level of craft. Apart from car and train chase scenes that outdo most others, this is a veritable treatise on superhero ballistics. You've seen the slow-mo magnified bullet thing before but he makes them a little more psychedelic and surreal, his ace shooters so precise their bullets meet in midair and we see them collide and split, even if they're curved to go around obstacles. The Bekmam is evidently still excited by what he's doing and he rises to the bigger challenges like gangbusters.

This movie damns all logic. A car jumps up over another car and upside down the driver picks off his victim. In a gorgeous climactic sequence a long train crashes down a mountain ravine caught at the top, undulating like a giant Slinky, while adversaries do battle within and without. Moments like this are satisfying to look at for their color and texture as much as for the cool preposterous way things dovetail and whip around; the movie never falters in maintaining its energy and distinctive look.

The film stars Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie as familiar, if elegant, arch villains, but there's a new guy on the block: James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson, the timid, terrified, unwilling d├ębutant killer-trainee they recruit, whose to him unknown father was one of them and who therefore is found to possess genetic peculiarities that make him capable of paranormal feats of mayhem and carnage. His "panic attacks," for which he pops tranquilizer pills daily while trudging back and forth to a demeaning office job as an accountant, are a sign that his heart can go up to 400 beats a minute and his adrenalin can pump so hard he can see and shoot off flies' wings. Yeah, well, you had to be there.

Wanted is full of such stretchers, but they are what make possible all the splendid visual tricks. They'd quickly pall, though, were it not for McAvoy's humanness as the meek, trampled-over Wesley, whose overweight, obnoxious female boss Janice (Lorna Scott) makes life at the office miserable, while his best friend (Chris Pratt) is screwing his snippy girlfriend (Kristen Hager). McAvoy, who has played the Scot that he is notably in The Last King of Scotland (a virtuoso role despite being overshadowed by Forest Whitaker) and a wide variety of Brits, including the victim in Atonement and a disabled punker from Dublin, not too surprisingly reincarnates himself completely not just with an American accent, but a whole American young guy's voice, maybe a little like the young Tom Cruise's but sweeter and less needy. It's an act of ventriloquism and rebirth as cool and astounding as any of Bekmambetov's gimmicks and as essential to the movie's success. Hard to praise McAvoy too much or to think of any other actor today who could have brought such vividness to his initially meek character and still take up the subsequent physical demands of the role with comparable energy and verve. This guy is talented. It was obvious he could handle all sorts of emotions and personalities, and now he turns himself into a hyperkenetic hunk. So two gifted foreigners smash into the Hollywood blockbuster scene with a bang here, the Russian director and the rising Scottish star.

And this movie is a lot of fun, even though the rather creaky comic book mythology of the secret order of weaver-assassins who need to recruit a new guy to take out a rogue member just gets hokier as it goes along. The "Loom of Fate" that spells out the next victim in a code of warp and weft? You have to take it all on faith, but that's easier when things are flying through the air. Only Wesley's identify crisis seems worth discussing and possibly even possessed of some connection with reality, thanks to McAvoy.

We've had convenience-store-pharmacy shootouts so often before they're getting to be a worn-out trope, but the one early on here that makes Wesley's intro to Fox (Angelina) and the ultra-violence of The Fraternity (the assassins society) is so violent it recalls the over-the-top joke gross-out one in Gregg Araki's underrated The Doom Generation.

Morgan Freeman as The Fraternity's boss-man Sloan is typically authoritative but his hectoring, sententious lectures to Wesley quickly grow tiresome; Jolie's Fox however has an offhand panache. Her role has been criticized as underwritten, but she does plenty with the will-timed monosyllable, the cunningly displayed tattoo, the anorexic arm extending an outsize silver pistol, and the pouting lips. Her performance says if you've got it, you can just flash it; you don't have to flaunt it. As an essential foil to Wesley's panics and ebullience, she is dashing and cool, and between them there's a kind of low-burner romance both are too busy to indulge in. To see Fox draped upside down on the front of a speeding Ferrari with guns blazing in both hands is to realize what a long way female, like black, actors have come as American fantasy heroes--leaving reality in the lurch.

But while there's a ton of stuff you can learn from comic books, most of that gets lost in the noise of screen adaptations, even though the hokey Walter Mitty platitudes about living life to the full are compensated by some truly wonderful physical feats and ocular trickeries. This is not like every other $75 million action movie (and Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk cost twice as much, by the way). Russians try harder. And they're just crazier.

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