In the preposterous, luridly entertaining "Wanted," we have this year's model of the Angry Young Man Power Fantasy. 1999's "Fight Club," which had some ideas, was the progenitor; 2007's "300," which didn't, was a recent entry. "Wanted" plays it down the middle, being neither too stupid to entirely discount nor smart enough to take seriously. Fortunately, the movie's onto the cruel joke at its center: That the roughest, toughest SOB on the planet these days is Angelina Jolie.
It's important that an Angry Young Man Power Fantasy be directed within an inch of its life by a talented up-and-comer, or the boys will get restless. Here we have Timur Bekmambetov, whose 2004 fantasy-action epic "Night Watch" was a sensation in Russia and a cult item here, tossing cars, trains, and heavy weaponry around with heartless abandon. Bekmambetov should have a rewarding Hollywood career: He makes you see the same old violence with fresh, often astounded eyes.
It's important, too, that an AYMPF have a weenie for a hero, a pallid cubicle drone who's taught to be a man, dammit, by a pillar of testosterone. As mentioned, said pillar in "Wanted" is Jolie, and as actress and found object she's more than happy to work that irony. A sleek, tattooed avatar of adolescent desire, she also knows better than to give her character any human qualities.
The weenie is Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), quivering from the combined assault of castrating boss, girlfriend, best friend, job, apartment, 21st-century existence. Wouldn't you know it, though - he's really a superhero, descended from a secret thousand-year line of gifted assassins called The Fraternity. Those stress attacks he keeps having? They're actually the genetic adrenalin boosts that allow Wesley to slow time down and deliver roundhouse kicks in mid-air.
Dreams of omnipotence rarely come this blunt, and after the initial disbelief on Wesley's part, "Wanted" takes great delight in letting him exact revenge on his puny tormentors. Imagine Harry Potter beating the Dursleys down, or Walter Mitty with a case of 'roid rage.
Then the movie's careering off on its rip-snorting main story line. There's a traitor in the ranks of the Fraternity, and among his victims is Wesley's long-lost daddy (David O'Hara). The head of the ancient brotherhood, Sloan (Morgan Freeman, who else?) asks the young man to fulfill his destiny by avenging his father, but first - the training sequence!
This involves ritual beatings (taken from "Fight Club"), suspended beef carcasses (taken from "Rocky"), the ability to bend bullets (taken from "The Matrix"), and long, healing baths in a gooey white substance (taken from Kripalu by way of Sigmund Freud). As a fellow assassin named Fox, Jolie is Beatrice to McAvoy's Dante, or Brad Pitt to his Edward Norton, or something. In any event, "Wanted" never allows a romance to develop between these two since that would be, like, gay.
Wait, have I mentioned the bedsheets? The Fraternity, it turns out, was founded by a medieval guild of weavers, and their modern descendants - a paradoxically multiracial crew that includes rapper Common as a weapons expert - hole up in a garment factory, taking their orders from a giant loom in which the names of their targets (all bad men, we're assured) are mystically encoded into the weave. You could try this at Linens 'n Things, but the thread count's just not there.
"Wanted" has clearly gone lunatic by this point, and the juicy pop subversion of the early scenes has vanished, replaced by dizzying action sequences that dispatch screaming extras as if they were so many Pez. A high-speed Eurail train hangs insanely off the side of a cliff and still Wesley and the evil Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) duke it out. Bekmambetov and his effects team allow us to both scoff and goggle at the glistening mayhem, yet there's a sense the movie has stopped riding the wave of macho fantasy and become swamped by it instead.
Eventually the script tosses us a decent twist, followed by further formulaic revenge, followed by a funny capper wherein McAvoy stares down the fanboys in their seats and dares them to grow a pair. It's as if Dirty Harry had gone into the self-help business.
The real subject, though, is the sexualization of ordnance. Nothing new there. More than once, Bekmambetov's camera magically follows a bullet backward through reverse-trajectory, out of the victim's head and into the womb of the shooter's muzzle; more than once, two bullets mash together in a homoerotic embrace. "Wanted" is quite happy to judge a man by the size of his gun. The irony is that the biggest one here belongs to Jolie, and her
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.