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Wanted, and the Art of Ass-Kicking Self Actualization

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Sunday, Nov 30, 2008

Screw Abraham Maslow! According to this so-called philosopher, the route to self-actualization - you know, the ultimate realization of one’s own value and worth within the context of social and interpersonal dynamics - is via some hoity-toity, ivory tower tested “hierarchy of needs”. For those of you without eggheads, Maslow created a pyramid (kind of like the finishing school four food groups of the soul) and situated the steps to ‘SA’ from bottom to tippy top. In essence, he argued that as long as you fulfilled each and every level of these innate necessities - basic needs, safety needs, psychological needs, etc. - you end up finding your true self…or some goofy PhD facsimile thereof.


Oddly enough, there’s no need to follow the unproven theorems of a cranky thinker circa 1943. Instead, just head out to the movies. If cinema has taught us anything, and the list of lessons is growing larger and more complex every day, it’s that the true path to individual enlightenment is not paved with food, shelter, law, order, family, status, or reputation. Instead, the journey, like the one taken by cubicle monkey Wesley Gibson in Timur Bekmambetov Summer 2008 sensation Wanted (now out on DVD from Universal), is covered with a singular kind of asphalt - the aggressive, ass-kicking kind. All you need is the ability to harness your own innate bad-ass and BINGO! - you’re a simple step away from uncovering the truth about who you really are, and what that person is capable of.


From ancient Greek mythology to the modern, more Lucas-oriented traditions, the geek turned titan, the nobody launched into the clouds of Mt. Olympus has fueled many a heroic narrative. Authors understand the allure of putting the everyman in the place of Hercules, giving the desk jockey or gym class dork an answer to their awkward social acceptance. Before he became the savior of the Jedi, lame-o Luke Skywalker was hanging out with his Tatoonie tool buddies, stuck back on the farm dreaming of taking on the Empire instead of actually signing up and sticking it to Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers. Of course, fate, and a full blown knowledge of the Force, turns him into the last man standing against the devious Dark Side, required to defeat the one man who can make or break his ability to actualize - his father, the aforementioned psycho Sith.



Or what about that computer hacker turned Jesus Christ, Neo, in the Wachowski’s wild Matrix movies. Intrigued by the rebellious nature of Morpheus and his gang of club hoping henchmen, this motherboard butthead dreams of breaking out of his corporate confines and “waking up” from what appears to be a living dream. He soon learns however that he is the “One”, no longer Thomas A. Anderson but a bonafide savior of all mankind. To take on such a challenge, and the ever-persistent attacks of the machine managed Agents, he must learn the truth about his world (it’s a virtual reality simulation), his skills (they’re as limitless as his ability to embrace them), and his limitations (his love for that holy hot sex in spandex sister, Trinity). While there’s no Daddy to defeat this time around, Neo does have to face off against Big Brother, proving to the omniscient mechanisms that he’s more than just a preprogrammed prophecy.


And then there’s the IKEA loving disciple of one Tyler Durdin in Fight Club. Incapable of anything other than ordering overpriced material comforts out of a catalog, our no-name auto recall reject (and future urban terrorist) discovers his proto-polar opposite in a studly, esoteric soap salesman. As they begin living - and fighting - together, the drone becomes the driven, inadvertently targeting the financial structure of society to implode the noxious new world order. They even bed the same psychological mess of a Miss in an attempt to prove their otherwise inert manhood. Before long, our antihero and his hunk realize they are one in the same, ID inverted and supercharged so that the rest of the psyche can feel free from inevitable liability. A bullet through the cheek, and things are suddenly starting to look right.


In all three cases, the wimp inevitably becomes the champ, the marginalized and mistreated turned into something akin to a human nuclear device. It’s the same for Gibson (played with plucky sarcasm and endless charm by a well cast James McAvoy), given over to Google-ing his own name, only to discover he’s the perfect post-millennial example of a nothing.  When Fox (again with the hottie, only this time she’s inhabited by Angelina Jolie, and packs a lot of ammunition efficiency to boot) finds him refilling his anxiety meds, the message is simple - your absentee father is dead, and Cross - the man who killed him - wants you gone as well. This lures Wesley into the mighty maw of the quasi-religious Fraternity, delivering dogma and death skills in several face punching, knife slashing sessions.



Under the Yoda like tutelage of Sloan, a kindly older man with a strict sense of murder-for-hire morality, Wesley discovers his inner assassin. Soon, he’s learning to curve bullets, hug danger, cuddle cruelty, and heal with wax-bath rapidity. Eventually, the truth is told - the man who wants Wesley dead is really his dad, and the entire “school for slayers” was just a set up to help the Fraternity get rid of the diabolic double-Cross. But by that time it’s too late. Wesley has been an apt pupil to say the least. Within days of discovering the reality of his being, he creates a complex plan to take out Sloan and his murderer’s row once and for all. He’ll need some help from the inside, but with his sense of self primed into overdrive, there’s almost no stopping him.


Indeed, Wanted tries to be new and novel - and the stunning actions sequences staged by director Bekmambetov are a marvel to look at - but it can’t escape its heroics heritage. Wesley doesn’t grow a pair of no holds barred balls until he discovers the power of money, and of making people suffer. His initial office encounters with fat boss Janice and best friend/girlfriend f*cker Barry sets things up perfectly for the clever comeuppance everyone will experience later on. Similarly, Sloan is seen as somewhat benevolent and trusting, and yet when the other shoe drops somewhere in the third act, Wesley is left to decide if he’s a man, or a mouse-bomber killing machine. Like his brethren in actualization, Luke, Neo, and Tyler-Twin, the protagonist in Wanted has to suffer and sacrifice to survive. He must face death and personal loss head on, if only to turn into the individual he’s destined to become.


Along the way, we are introduced to the creative clichés buried in the a.k.s.a. genre (elements acknowledged as necessary in the DVD’s intriguing added content). Wesley goes through a period of training, learning the lessons of the Fraternity. Substitute past preparations like the ways of the Force, the virtual dojo, or the sweaty, blood spattered basements of various Fight Clubs, and you start to see the pattern. There’s almost always a mentor involved - be he an ex-Jedi schooling yet another young pupil in his folklore ways, a believer desperate to train the new Messiah, or a manly macho mug skilled at doing everything his alter ego is incapable of. Toss in various babes - princesses, killers, super hero honeys in skin tight leather - and you’ve got the makings of a movie.



But the reason that Wanted is so superior to other ordinary action fodder is its desire to make you think. All throughout the narrative, Wesley wonders aloud about his sorry lot in life. He confronts his lack of backbone, and questions the very fabric of his false existence. His initial reaction to Fox is one of panic, followed by the giddy kind of joy a child must experience when something new and exciting enters their sheltered sphere of influence. By the time he’s learning gut-level courage from The Repairman, knife skills from The Butcher, and firearms from The Gunsmith, he’s no longer questioning himself. Instead, the last line of the movie is aimed at the audience, asking them to look into the motion picture mirror and ‘reflect’ on who they really are.


Like Star Wars, and The Matrix, and Fight Club, Wanted is propelled by as many concepts as car crashes, redefining the genre as it embraces and enhances it. Bekmambetov is wildly inventive as a filmmaker, fleshing out his storyline with quirky moments of brutal slapstick, sick humor, and that all important element for any bullet ballet - slo-mo stuntwork. By mimicking experts at the style like the master of the reduced frame rate, John Woo, Bekmambetov enhances the character’s inner voyage. By the end, we understand the misbegotten bravado, the need to prove to everyone that he is better, smarter, stronger, craftier, and about as whole and individually realized as any person can be.


Few of these films backtrack on the heroics. In the case of Wars and Matrix, both took their icons and gave them added humanizing aspects like doubt, fear, and that always lethal combination of love and honor. It will be interesting to see where Wesley goes should a rumored Wanted sequel ever materialize. He’s a hitman with a lot of potential. In the meantime, we can re-watch our anxious account manager go from lox to legitimate in the span of two tripwire hours. Behind the edge of your seat veneer and raging amounts of filmic testosterone, Wanted is just another example of self-actualization via a well placed foot in someone’s behind. Maslow may need several strangulated steps to get to where he’s going, but a prophet like Wesley Gibson only needs one. It’s the pyramid or the punch-out - you decide. As with any journey into self-discovery, the decision is yours.


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