Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.
As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point, a place to explore elements within our society that the comic couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address. In the main character of Wesley Gibson, the film finds a disgruntled everyman, an empty Google search drone who has done literally nothing with his life. As the perfect contemporary protagonist, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.
Toss in terrific performances by James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Thomas Kretschmann, a twisty plot that never gets too tangled in its own contrivances, and more insane, inventive action than a John Woo-ping Yuen fever dream, and you’ve got one of the most amazing movies of the Summer. Even better, it’s poised to dominate the more adult oriented end of the 27 June box office. While the kiddies are clamoring for more of Wall*E‘s robot allegory, teens and those prone to masterful machismo will be lining up to see gunshots curve, wound curing paraffin baths, and a certain actress’s tattooed backside. And if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.
Most of the success for this film rests rightfully on the shoulders of Bekmambetov. Among genre film fans, he’s best known for the vampire deconstruction of Night Watch and Day Watch. Named his country’s best young director in 1997, he clearly shares the sensibility of his Hong Kong based Asian brothers. Wanted is like The Killer with more car stunts, a baffling battle royale between forces that defy physics while simultaneously stoking audience appreciation. Bekmambetov clearly understands character and he takes time throughout the arc to stop and let layers of personality slowly expand and contract. By the end of the narrative, when weapons have replaced wisdom, we develop a real rooting interest in who lives and who dies.
In fact, what makes Wanted better than either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk is the abject joy that filmmaker Bekmambetov brings to the project. Jon Favreau used a no-nonsense approach to realizing Tony Stark and company, and Louis Leterrier applies a MTV style of calculated quick cuts to infer action and tension. But the fast-slow sensibility of the 47 year old Russian auteur serves his spectacle flawlessly. It’s the most exquisite match between visionary and vision since the Chicago born comic book geeks gave us Neo, Agent Smith, and a war for survival across virtual reality.
What seals the deal, of course, is the Chuck Palahniuk-esque sentiments running through the story. Wesley narrates some of the action, his acid tongue takedowns of those he works for and with enough to recall Edward Norton and his razor sharp social commentary. The main theme of Wanted explores the victor inside the seemingly anemic, the superstar stuck inside the cubicle klatch of a nameless corporate ogre. The notion of a nobody able to wield god-like powers over life and death more or less defines our current cultural climate, a place where the standard rules of success no longer seem to apply. Even better, the film throws such sad sack sentiments back at the viewer, confronting them at every level into answering that most probing of Generation Hexed questions - what have you done with your life.
Such a crowd-pleasing confrontation is destined to get film fetishists and messageboard mavericks in a lush, liquid lather, and of course, they’ll be chiming for more, more, more. Unfortunately, while there’s been talk of a sequel, anyone who has seen the film will argue that a follow-up will be kind of tough. Not impossible, but one guesses somewhat incapable, of filtering the same material into the current cocksure slam dunk - at least from a practical standpoint. And who knows, maybe the audiences won’t turn up. After all, there is blood and guts o’plenty, and the kind of violence glorification that gets nosy mothers and grass roots campaigners up and active. If Grand Theft Auto meets with a mountain of negative press the day of its release, this bullet through the brain bravado is guaranteed to get under someone’s skin.
Yet even if it fails to meet its box office goals (ala Fight Club) and has to find a clear cult fanbase on DVD/Blu-ray (as with The Matrix), Wanted will remain a bright spot in a season soured by limp comedies, clammy kid fare, and a regressive reliance on things that were popular five years ago. Granted, 1999 is a mere decade past, but at least this film mines some of that year’s more meaningful entries. Whenever anyone successfully imitates efforts from the past - John Carpenter channeling Alfred Hitchcock for his brilliant B-movie Halloween, Woody Allen working through the entire Bergman/Fellini oeuvre - the results are telling…and usually terrific. Wanted is poised to be the next big thing, and it has a couple of previous honorees to that crown to thank for it.