Down the corridor on a top floor of an office skyscraper, a tough-looking man strides, radiating corporate menace. Inside his swank office, he detects danger from outside, and in a moment his colleague has been shot. Running toward the office window, he leaps out, head first, his face a mesh mosaic of broken plastic, as if it were a crushed stained-glass mask. He lands on the adjacent building the shots came from, using his own artillery to dispatch several of his would-be killers, including one with a bullet that can turn corners. Alone and triumphant, he hears a voice from afar saying, "They were just decoys," and BANG! he's killed by a shell that enters his skull from the back and explodes out of his forehead. Then, like a missile shifting into reverse, the bullet retraces its path, returning through the executive's head, quickly backtracking across town into a dark room and into the rifle from which it was fired. The play of shadows allows us a glimpse of the killer; his name is Cross.
As if in instant celebration of the Supreme Court's ruling on a citizen's right to bear arms and of the newly articulated "individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation" the burly new fantasy Wanted reveals the magic that can blossom when you put a gun in the hand of a meek wage slave and tell him he was born to be a righteous killer. Directed at a pitch of gritty giddiness by the Kazakhstan-born Timur Bekmambetov, who did the DVD faves Night Watch and Day Watch, this hard-R splatter-fest about a team of sanctified assassins is also the summer's zazziest action movie.
In the story based on Mark Millar's 2003 miniseries for Top Cow comics, and adapted for the screen by Derek Haas, Michael Brandt and Chris Morgan, the white-collar drudge is Wesley Gibson (Scots actor James McAvoy), whose life is a conspiracy of indignities. In a job where he's badgered by his fat-cow boss, he reads a dense computer page and his brain isolates the words "why? "are? "you? "here?". His girlfriend is having sex with his best friend, and Wesley pays for the condoms his friend will use to betray him. Even his ATM sasses him. "Insufficient funds," the text brays at him. "You're an asshole." When he was an infant, his father disappeared, and Wesley can't blame him. He doesn't want to be around himself either. And yet, depressed to the point of inertia, he can't summon the resolve to commit suicide.
Then, behind in line at a store, a stunning woman the Angelina Jolie-like Fox (Angelina Jolie) whispers: "Your father was one of the greatest assassins who ever lived. The man who killed him is over there." Over there is Cross (Thomas Kretchmann), triggering much gunplay. BANG! Fox drags the terrified Wesley into a sports car and takes him on a chase through Chicago traffic that climaxes with her avoiding the pursuing killer by somersaulting her car sideways over other vehicles. It's a talent Wesley will acquire when he's assigned to shoot a businessman in a limo with bullet-proof windows. Too bad the man's sun roof was open. BANG!
Wesley has been recruited into the Fraternity, which its leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman, in another of his God roles) explains is a thousand-year-old sect of killers whose sacred mission is to end the lives of evil people before they can commit their worst crimes: "You kill one, maybe save a thousand." (It's a little like the Pre-Crime Unit in Minority Report.) The team includes a specialist in gun lore (Common) and a fat man (Konstantin Khabensky) who's sharp with knives. But Fox is the star, and in poor, confused Wesley, Sloan believes he he's found another one that the lad must have powers passed down by his father. To prove it, he puts Wesley through a punishing initiation that involves getting smacked around, slashed open and, to recuperate, lying in a tub of goo. Sure enough, Wesley has the goods. Now all he has to do is kill the man who killed his father.
THE WIZARD OF ODD
It takes a while for the Fraternity to transform Wesley from dweeb to demi-deity. For the first third of the movie, he clings to his wimpiness, threatening to break the All-time Whining record held by the Justin Long character in Live Free and Die Hard. Moviegoers may start to wonder if McAvoy has imported to Wanted the softness of his roles in the more elevated Brit films Atonement, The Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane. But he eventually gets the hang of movie heroism. Like Tobey Maguire, plucked from indie films to play Spider-Man, McAvoy is the sensitive nerd who, when shirtless, brandishes the bulked-up chest a few months with a stern trainer can produce. That's how you get yanked from the decorous little world of Masterpiece Theatre-type dramas and morphed into a summer blockbuster's mean malefactor.
In the middle of one impossible assignment, Wesley asks Fox, "Have you ever thought of being somebody else somebody normal?" She ponders for a beat and replies, "No." The same question, and answer, might apply to Jolie. The contours of her face and body are improbable, arresting and unique; she's simply not designed to play ordinary people. We don't doubt her skills as a serious actress, but she's much more seductive and satisfying as a fantasy or cartoon character. Or a saint from some fertility cult: Holy Jolie.