Reviews

Wanted

Angelina Jolie has evolved. As of Wanted, she is no longer merely mortal, but her own sublime creature.


Wanted

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann, Common, Marc Warren, David Patrick O'Hara, Konstantin Khabensky, Dato Bakhtadze
Distributor: Universal Pictures
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-06-25 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-06-27 (General release)
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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