The most interesting thing about Wanted is that its protagonist is one of the most unlikable action heroes in memory — a smug, self-regarding asshole whose honestly distasteful misanthropy is at least refreshing in a genre that often relies on charming sociopaths to sell popcorn. As the film opens, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a hapless desk jockey working at a job he can’t stand for a boss he hates. (Somebody show this guy Livejournal, Facebook, anything.) He knows that his own girlfriend is getting screwed on the kitchen countertop by one of his office mates during the daily lunch hour. He types “Wesley Gibson” into Google and laments the returned empty page. He can’t get $20 out of the ATM because he doesn’t have $20, and he can’t get $10 out because the machine only dispenses 20s. And our little Sisyphus can’t get over the idea that, after he gets off work in the evening, he just has to get up the next morning and go back to work again. For those of us in the audience who long ago made our peace with real-world annoyances like earning a paycheck and polishing our résumés, Wesley expresses contempt in second-person voiceover. Presumably, dear viewer, you haven’t killed anyone lately — and that makes you a pussy.
Entertainingly stylish but scripted with the attitude of a playground bully, Wanted revels in bloodshed. Wesley falls in with a secret society of expertly talented assassins — they can curve the path of bullets, drive cars through mid-air barrel rolls, or see the world in super slow motion — who get their orders from a supernatural weaving loom that embeds codes in swatches of fabric. (No, really. Morgan Freeman, playing the assassins’ ringleader, Sloane, portentously, hilariously, declares it The Loom of Fate. I eagerly await the Sweater of Destiny.) Wesley, already a seething cauldron of barely sublimated rage over his dawning awareness that life isn’t fair, is ripe for the picking — his father was a member of the group, you see, and the skill set runs in the family.
The action is as outrageous as the premise, with the obligatory training sequences segueing into a string of CG-enhanced assassinations where Wesley learns to spin bullets like curveballs and think about car chases in three dimensions rather than the customary two. I haven’t seen director Timur Bekmambetov’s celebrated vampire films, Night Watch and Day Watch, so I don’t know if they have anything resembling a sense of humor, but Wanted sure isn’t much fun. Here, he gets his kicks by fetishizing entry wounds and blood splatter the way some people might navigate a porn video, jogging the image backward and forward in slow motion and moving the virtual camera to just the right angle to get a load of a bullet’s trajectory, the inscription on its side, or the way human flesh pokes away from the skull as a bullet nudges its way through from the inside. The closest thing to a running joke is the film’s treatment of Wesley’s fat boss, who lords it over her underlings because she was picked on in junior-high school — and in one scene, cue laughter, munches on a donut as a bullet passes harmlessly through the center hole — and of Wesley’s bitchy girlfriend, who is humiliated, basically, for not looking like Angelina Jolie.
Jolie plays the aptly named Fox, who easily outclasses the rest of that blandly lethal team with a sly smile and lots of sex appeal. Just hanging around in the margins of most scenes, she provides a welcome break from the sausage fest that is the rest of the movie — and, as it turns out, Fox is the only character in the whole film who seems to actually adhere to a moral code, taking seriously the guild’s ideal of helping the world through bloody murder rather than using it for personal advantage. Wesley, on the other hand, is all about the kind of self-actualization that comes from the barrel of a gun. Early in the story, he’s seen moping about the idea that he’s expected to kill a corporate-executive type without a clear idea of whether the guy deserves his fate; by the time Fox drives a sportscar into the side of a European Pendolino train, eventually sending hundreds of civilians plummeting to their deaths, Wesley’s taking it all in stride, like a guy who’s living in a John Woo film. As the end credits roll, he’s excruciatingly self-satisfied.
At one point, meek Wesley opines that, if the hot chick in the office just saw him for who he really was instead of the wage slave that he had become, she’d recognize the fierceness of his soul etc. Wanted never once delivers the reality check this douchebag so richly deserves — as a matter of fact, it rewards him, and gives you the finger for expecting anything different. Imagine Fight Club without its reflexive subtext and/or The Matrix without its innovative visuals, and you have a pretty good idea of the dreary machismo that drives Wanted: Wesley Gibson may not be a beautiful and unique snowflake, but he’s better than you. C