SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for "Wanted," opening June 27.
"Wanted" is a smartly directed summer action film. Timur Bekmambetov, director of the neo-classic "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" vampire films, brings his sense for speed, humor, and action to what might otherwise be a dreary adaptation of the Top Cow graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. The film's biggest faults lie in how far it strays from the source. In the interest of recognizing those changes, we present two reviews: If You've Read "Wanted" and If You Haven't Read "Wanted."
IF YOU HAVEN'T READ "WANTED."
The film centers around one Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a work drone in an office job he barley tolerates, in a relationship he hates, and in a small apartment next some tremendously noisy elevated trains. He is a modern film everyman. All of this explodes in black leather and bullets when Wesley meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), an agent of the ancient Fraternity--an organization of sweater-makers who also kill on the will (and Loom) of Fate. It turns out Wesley's father was a member of this order and the only man who could defeat Cross, a rogue agent, who has already gunned unsuccessfully for Wesley. Most of this back story is told to us by Morgan Freeman. As usual, he brings his effortless cool to the proceedings.
Wesley is then trained in the killing skills by a colorful crew of whimsically named assassins. This number includes The Repairman (Marc Warren), the Gunsmith (Common), and the Butcher (Dato Bhaktadze). Wesley learns about knives. He learns about kicking teeth in. He learns about curving bullets (we'll come back to that). He also learns not to be "a pussy." That last lesson is almost exclusively the purview of a man who spends most of his time surrounded by sides of beef.
After his training, Wesley goes on assignment, gets confidence and is eventually ordered to hunt down Cross -- because Wesley is the only person Cross has ever missed. Gorgeous European vistas, intrigue, and twists follow.
Let's get back to that curved bullet thing. In the universe of the film, Fraternity members learn a skill that allows them to shoot bullets in a lateral curved trajectory. This is the impossible thing the film expects you to believe before breakfast. If you do, you will enjoy the rest of the film and there is plenty to enjoy. Every action set piece is well designed and executed, with the car chase and shootout in the early part of the film being a highlight. It's hyper-paced and pulls off the "I'm out off my depth" vibe really well. Similarly, a chase through train cars later on racks up tension through the use of close-quarters camera work and, oddly, using the actual reactions of train passengers suddenly confronted with a gun-toting James McAvoy.
McAvoy is the highlight of the case. With the majority of the other characters delivering largely silent performances -- except for Freeman and brief appearance by Terrance Stamp -- McAvoy carries the film largely on his voice-over narration and charm. In the early parts of the movie, the Scottish actor effortlessly hits the exact tone Steven Spielberg throws millions at to make Shia LaBeouf look plausible. When McAvoy has ascended to "God of Killers" rank, you buy his conversion.
The final action extravaganza does have a feel of a good action game complete with boss battles, and the actual climax of the film chooses a dramatic closure over an explosive one. "Wanted" takes all the off-the-shelf parts of a gun-filled action movie and assembles them in ways that gives most of the standard pieces a sort of freshness. The plot is obvious and the twists will not surprise you. If you've ever seen any movie about leather-clad assassins, you already know how this film plays out. The speed and skill of the movie-making balance out those faults, however.
IF YOU'VE READ "WANTED."
This movie simply does not work.
By his own admission, Mark Millar states the basic story beats of his graphic novel are the classic hero's journey. What makes anything in that plot interesting is the inversion into "the villain's journey." That twist, and the flavor it brought to the comic, is completely absent from the feature film called "Wanted." Instead of super-villains amusingly trying to hide their bright colors, we get leather-clad assassin types from a hundred different direct-to-DVD films. Instead of the giddy thrill-killers in the book, we get the "kill one to save a thousand" justification for murder.
While that softening of the tone makes sense from a film studio standpoint, it completely dilutes everything that makes the "Wanted" comic book stand out. What does the movie carry over? The scene in which Wesley is ordered to shoot flies or die is present. Wesley's big "fuck you" moment at work? Yeah, that is in there. The concept of "the decoys" appears early on. Some elements of Wesley's training appear in the film, but repurposed to show a personal growth instead of adding to the complete disillusionment and depravity of the character, as it is in the comics.
The movie does make one smart move by completely eliminating Millar's ham-fisted and borderline offensive dialogue for the Fox. Instead, her film counterpart largely says nothing at all ... well, except for an equally ham-fisted origin story.
The fighting over land that takes up such a large part of the series is completely absent from the film, though Mr. Rictus does get a name-check. Even in the "assassin of fate" version of "Wanted," the idea of factions chafing at each other could provide some plot movement and tension. That's before we even get to the concept that many of the villains want to be loud and colorful again.
The biggest disappoint of the "Wanted" movie by far is the complete gutting of the title. Despite all the super-villainy, raping, and territorial intrigue, Millar and Jones's "Wanted" is about a lad whose life is dominated by the lack of a father's love. It is only though the Killer's machinations that Wesley ever becomes some sort of a man. It is only when the Killer submits to die that Wesley ever feels ... wanted. This is the thread Hollywood movies usually love. How many Spielberg pictures entirely depend on being "wanted?" Yet, in the film, this notion is merely glanced at and cast aside for a bog-standard, "not-all-is-as-it-seems" third act.
"Wanted" is, at best, a throw-back to earlier comic book adaptations that disregarded the purity of its source concepts to make a film for a "wider audience." At worst, it is a film made in the cynical belief the filmmakers can change any aspect they want because the core audience will come and see it anyway. That same attitude that gave us video game films like "Super Mario Bros." and "Street Fighter."
Oh, and the famous last line of the book? Let's just say, "This is not my face ..."
Now discuss this story in CBR's TV/Film forum.