A Tangled Web

An ancient guild of weavers becomes a fate-wielding fraternity of assassins
in Wanted.

Fox (Angelina Jolie) makes Wesley (James McAvoy) a Wanted man.

Wesley Gibson wants a lot. Mostly, he wants out.

Every morning, he ties his tie a little too tightly, leaves his unfaithful girlfriend and heads to his cookie-cutter cubicle. The twentysomething account manager works alongside his best friend (the source of his girlfriend’s infidelity), popping anti-anxiety pills by the fistful and avoiding work. His lethargy and late billing reports infuriate his horrible boss, who snap, snap, snaps her red stapler in his ear, punctuating a steady stream of profanity and insults. Wesley knows he is losing at the game of life, but just can’t seem to work up the will to do anything about it.

Then, one night, standing in line at the pharmacy to once again fill the prescription that just barely makes his days bearable, Wesley finds he won’t have to work up the will to find another fate. Instead, another fate sidles up to him — in the form of a lithe, lethal assassin named Fox. Wesley, it turns out, really isn’t meant to sleepwalk through his days; by birthright, he’s meant to join the Fraternity, an adoptive family of trained killers with a higher calling. Only thing is, while Wesley undoubtedly wanted out of his old life, he’s not completely sure he wants in on this new one. At least, at first.

Based on the comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted starts running when Wesley does and never really lets up. Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, known in Russia for his horror/action movies, packs his Hollywood debut with fast action and computer-generated imagery that makes for one of the most fun, most fluffy cinematic rides so far this summer.

The story — scripted by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who worked together on 2 Fast 2 Furious and 3:10 to Yuma) and Chris Morgan (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) — is a mash-up of pop-culture references and mythologies and strays somewhat from the confines of its comic book origins. So much so, that on the face of it, Wanted’s derivative datamining and character changes ought to torpedo its chances at success. Too much Matrix, too much Fight Club, not enough Wanted. And yet the movie more than works.

Most important, Brandt, Haas and Morgan keep the series’ signature cynical humor, the combustible and irresistible snark that propels Bekmambetov’s hard-charging action and aggressive camera work. Early on, Wesley’s weary outlook saturates the movie in a likeable ennui; once he decides to pledge the Fraternity, his voice changes, but not his views. He’s funny and quirky and true. He makes Wanted smarter than it should be.

It’s also filmed with more style and savvy than might be expected from a Hollywood newcomer, whether it’s Fox (Angelina Jolie) hanging off the side of a blood-red Viper and firing shots at a pursuing bad guy or Wesley (James McAvoy) riding out a high-altitude train wreck. Like every good comic-book movie should, the story pushes the limits of suspended disbelief, but the filmed action never does. When it turns out that the Fraternity receives its marching orders from a loom that serves as the mouthpiece of Fate, stitching out the names of the assassin’s target in some modified binary code, the plot device requires a leap of faith. But Bekmambetov creates a credible world for all this mystery and mayhem, and his cityscapes and detailed interiors are as good-looking as his lead actors.

With Wanted, McAvoy (whose best resume boasts thus far have been The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Atonement) makes a giant leap forward in his leading-man screen presence. He pulls off Wesley as beleaguered office drone and Wesley as badass sharpshooter with equal conviction. There’s a personality in play here that we’ve not seen from him before. Jolie (Beowulf, A Mighty Heart) doesn’t stretch much as she smolders her way through her performance, but she sure has a good time being Fox, and that makes it fun for fans. Throw in the lion heart of Morgan Freeman (Fraternity father figure Sloan) and the chiseled cheekbones of Terence Stamp (bulletmaker Pekwarsky), and that’s a cast worth watching.

A lot of critics and moviegoers have noted that there’s nothing new about Wanted’s action, that there’s too much they’ve sort of seen before, and they’ve got a point. But only up to a point. Because there’s something worthy about taking the old and ordinary and making it new. Kind of like taking a bored, anxious account manager and turning him into an instrument of fate, his own and everyone else’s.