[25 June 2008]
Some things about the summer movie season are as predictable as ... well, the summer movie season. There will always be movies based on comic books - like “Wanted.” There will always be movies worked on by five writers - like “Wanted.” There will be movies starring Angelina Jolie cast as a kind of gun-wielding fashion model - like “Wanted.” And action thrillers with body counts that rise faster than the national debt clock - like “Wanted.”
|AN ODD MIX OF CRAFT AND ‘CROFT’ Like many Hollywood goddesses - Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Michelle Pfeiffer come immediately to mind - Angelia Jolie has had to confront the curse of good looks (yes, weep for her). They may open doors, but they can keep an actress from being taken seriously. Jolie, however, has flirted with the limiting labels of babedom with movies that beg for ridicule (such as “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider”) and then taken on assignments that would challenge any actress. Below are some high and low lights. “Gia” (1998) - Yes, casting Jolie as America’s proto-supermodel exhibited the kind of risk-taking the movies are famous for, even made-for-cable movies. But Jolie’s performance as the beautiful and tragic Gia Marie Carangi won her a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Emmy nomination. It also showed that the actress was capable of a certain on-screen alchemy. “Girl, Interrupted” (1999) - Her performance at the Academy Awards was weird - she was snuggling with her brother. Yet the role that got her there, as the disturbed Lisa Rowe, sociopathic dorm-mate to Winona Ryder, was chillingly human and convincingly unhinged. What was intended as Ryder’s comeback turned into Jolie’s coming-out party. And won her a best supporting actress Oscar. “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider” (2001) - Some theorize that Jolie was created on a computer (a horny 14-year-old boy’s computer). So it makes a twisted kind of sense that she’d star in one of the first of what is now a contemporary plague: the video-game adaptation. It’s also a twisted kind of sense that “Lara Croft” - and its 2003 sequel “LCTR: The Cradle of Life” - made her a bona fide international star, despite reducing the actress to the status of highly athletic decor. “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004) - Kerry Conran’s wholly computerized homage to ‘30s serial adventures and the giant flying robot featured Jolie in a very small role - that of Franky, the eye-patch-wearing aeronautical pirate and ex-girlfriend of the hero (Jude Law). But Jolie showed a real sense of flair and, more importantly, humor, self-deprecating and otherwise. She also ate Gwyneth Paltrow’s lunch. “A Mighty Heart” (2007) - Jolie starred as Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, in what was, dramatically, an impossible situation: The real-life Mariane had written the book; Brad Pitt - aka Mr. Jolie - was a producer, and Jolie herself seemed in charge of what was ostensibly a Michael Winterbottom-helmed ship. Jolie’s stardom had long eclipsed her talents as an actress, and she would be scrutinized rigorously in portraying a real-life person. But Winterbottom didn’t help matters - each time there was a conflict among the principal characters, for instance, the discussion would terminate with a close-up of Jolie, whose Mariane invariably had the solution. The moment of Daniel Pearl’s death was operatic; the way Jolie dominated the film was unseemly. Not a great movie, but a great example of stardom sublimating a story.|
So what’s different about “Wanted,” which opens Friday, and its relationship to the very season that makes Hollywood the happiest? Among other things, that it’s directed by a Russian horror stylist; it stars a Scotsman whose biggest films have been the quasi-art-house hits “The Last King of Scotland” and “Atonement.” And that it features, in the all-important role of uber-villain, a German best known for playing either Nazis or the pope.
“I was really insecure when they hired me,” said Thomas Kretschmann, the East German-born actor whose parts have included an officer of the Third Reich in “The Pianist” and the title character in the TV movie “Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II.” “Angelina does it all - give her a weapon, and she knows what to do. Me, it was, ‘When can I start weapons training? Please!!!’”
For all his firearms phobia, it’s Kretschmann who kicks things off, when his character, Cross, murders Mr. X (David O’Hara), and we discover that the recently deceased had a son, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), who is a miserable, cuckolded accountant. And yet ... he carries the latent genetic material to make him the world’s greatest assassin. Who can help him realize his potential? The mysterious Sloan (Morgan Freeman), Fox (Jolie) and a team of trainers who nearly kill Wesley, in preparing him to kill others.
Did we mention that the team is part of a 1,000-year-old tradition of assassins founded by a guild of weavers? The mystery looms ...
“That they were willing to cast me meant they were willing to do things totally differently,” said the Glasgow-born McAvoy. “And I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I read the script, I was impressed, but I wasn’t entirely sold. But then I saw his other films. He’s so different, so weird.”
“He” is director Timur Bekmambetov, Soviet-born (in what is now Kazakhstan) and, along with filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi, one of the leading explorers of the outskirts of supernatural cinema. His double-barreled vampire thrillers “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” opened up all-new veins of visual mayhem en route to box-office success.
And yet, despite “Wanted’s” defiance of physics, medicine and use of bullets that shoot around corners, he said special effects take a backseat to character. And that on “Wanted,” he had the same type of relationship with his performers he had enjoyed on his Russian films.
“It was very collaborative and free, and without statuses,” he said, then laughed at his own mangled English. “Sometimes, the players create ideas, and then we translate them to CG, but the most powerful special effect is the actor. All the visual style is an extension of character.”
Bekmambetov said that he got what he wanted, and made the film that he wanted, although McAvoy said the ending of the film is now completely different from what they shot. “There was a massive 10-minute fight scene between me and Sloan that’s gone. The film is better for it. I knew it would be violent. But this is a film that luxuriates in its own violence. It bathes in its own violence.”
And this, the actor said, really separates “Wanted” from the standard summer fare. “It’s an adult-oriented action-thriller, a hard-R, no-kids-allowed kind of film. You don’t see that much in summer. But it’s cool. It’s different. That’s why I was interested in the first place.”
Kretschmann is used to violence: He starred in “Grimm Love,” which was about a real-life case of cannibalism and was deemed unreleasable in Germany. “That almost never happens,” he said.
For all the creative angles and counterintuitive characteristics of “Wanted,” the big question remains ... Ms. Jolie. “She’s chilled out, a nice woman,” McAvoy said. “She doesn’t take it all too seriously. You know, we’re not changing people’s lives with a movie like this, and if you can’t have fun on the set of something like ‘Wanted,’ then someone else should probably be doing it.”
Kretschmann echoed his “Wanted” colleague. “You come on set, you’ve seen her all over the place, but it takes about 30 seconds to get over any intimidation. She makes it that way. She’s easygoing, but she’s a strong woman. I like strong women.
“She knows what she’s after,” he added. “And she goes for the kill.”