The essential point of assassination is the death of the subject. A human being may be killed in many ways but sureness is often overlooked by those who may be emotionally unstrung by the seriousness of this act they intend to commit.
—CIA Assassination Manual 1953
Angelina Jolie has evolved. As of Wanted, she is no longer merely mortal, but her own sublime creature. As the consummate assassin Fox, she is surrounded repeatedly by attractive mayhem—guns shooting, cars crashing, edifices tumbling—and yet you can’t look away from her. At once spectacular and discreet, unearthly and tabloidy-maternal, she’s become the flesh-and-bones, tailless version of Grendel’s Mother, appropriately enthralled and bored with herself.
The ideal consumable object, Jolie-as-Fox first appears in Wanted at the moment of greatest need for her most eager consumer. Wretched account manager Wesley (James McAvoy), dismayed by his cheating girlfriend, stapler-wielding boss, and dead-end cubicle job, makes his way to the all-night pharmacy to fill a prescription for anti-anxiety medication, jittery and despondent. “I knew your father,” she says, thin white dress clinging to her steely frame, tattoos up her arms and down her back. Startled to be addressed by this gorgeous stranger, Wesley has no idea what comes next, though you get a clue when a second, more conventionally nefarious assassin (Thomas Kretschmann) crosses the frame, taking aim at Wesley.
Here the film launches into the vaunted hyper-action inspired by its source, Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’s comic book series: bodies fly, eyelines warp and slide, bullets whiz, and soon enough, the principals are zipping through traffic, slamming and flipping their cars to get better views of their targets. Exciting, loud, and cartoonish, the sequence also conveys plot: playing Sarah Connor to Jolie’s Reese, McEvoy responds serially—terrified, angry, awed, impressed, and seduced. By the time Fox gets Wesley back to HQ—a castle-like textiles factory that looks abandoned—he’s recovered himself to the point of resisting what he sees as his kidnapping. Sloan (Morgan Freeman), neat in a suit, looks the bedraggled Wesley up and down, then evaluates: “I thought he’d be taller.”
Here comes the Matrix part. Wesley is the only one who can manage a particular mission, according to Sloan. When he tells Wesley to “shoot the wings off the flies” in a wastebasket full of buzzy little flitters, Wesley demurs, then does so, under threat of death. Now he knows, he is his father’s son, meaning, he shares dad’s genetic predisposition for brilliant assassinating and, no small thing, inherits his millions of dollars in blood money. Informed that his long-troubling “anxiety attacks” were actually signs of his extra-perceptual gifts, Wesley is skeptical, then thrilled. Now he can not only give up his dreary drone’s life, but he can tell off his bully of a boss and his bad girlfriend too. Now, he feels touch and special, as Fox instructs him: “Insanity is wasting your life over nothing. You have the blood of a killer pulsing inside you.” Now Wesley’s harsh judgments of others—never far from the front of his mind, as his voiceover exposes repeatedly—can be compounded by his actions (it helps that the camera treats his adversaries as yucky villains, so you root for him clobbering a cretin with a computer keyboard).
As Wesley takes up training for his one-and-only mission, Wanted leaves off the explanations and dives directly into action for its own, pounding, exhilarating sake. His teachers have names like Gunsmith (Common), The Butcher (Dato Bakhtadze), and The Exterminator (Konstantin Khabensky), and from them Wesley learns to hurtle himself from impossible heights, shoot around corners, ride the tops of trains, and survive bone-breaking bloody beatings (this via super-healing baths, courtesy of The Repairman [Marc Warren]).
Though Wesley doesn’t spend much time worrying about the morality of his new gig, the film offers up a rudimentary framework, as assignments are made by the Loom of Fate, a literal loom that delivers names in binary code, deciphered by Sloan, Dead Like Me‘s dryly ironic post-its reconfigured to suit this decidedly less clever movie’s ancient “clan of weavers.” It’s best not to wonder how these supposedly brainy killers fall for this preposterous line about fate’s orders and ordinations. If Wesley is the best they have to conjure/offer, the point is not so much justice or destiny, but payback. The targets you see look deserving enough—smarmy executives, brutes or contract killers. No one has to feel bad about killing “one to save thousands,” as Fox tells it, even if no one actually sees how that equation works out.
Director Timur Bekmambetov—whose Night Watch (Nochnoy dozor) and Day Watch (Dnevnoy dozor) established his cool kid cred—spends even less time worrying about moral or narrative logic than the above half paragraph took to read. Wanted borrows and reshapes, delivers to comicky-action-aficionado expectations while poking minor fun at those expectations. The violence is hard, bloody, and noisy, even during its slow-motion balletic instances. It’s not that you care who gets blown up or shot full of gruesome holes, whose body is ravaged or whose face is bruised and black-eyed. The manchild Wesley certainly doesn’t help: far too self-serious to take seriously, he narrates to the point of tedium, exposing the insignificance of his concerns with righteous masculinity, not to mention his father-son business and the resulting tragedies.
None of these issues matters as much as he supposes (and they’re certainly too familiar to warrant interpretation). And none of them drives the movie. What does drive it might be reduced to something like style, with Jolie its most efficient, superb embodiment. All she has to do now is show up, really, or walk away from the camera with her naked back exposed, or purse her lips, eat a sandwich during an especially brutal training session, fire a few rounds. Whatever Fox does, her frequently asserted belief in this stupid system of assessments and assignments seems both genuine and disingenuous. The only girl up in this mess, she not only embodies the film’s infatuation with style, but also the possibility to see it all another way—as the unbelievable, self-congratulatory pretense it is.