Holy Jolie! Wanted Delivers

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Angelina Jolie, left, and Morgan Freeman in Wanted

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Fox is a blend of Jolie's previous adventuress roles: the CIA killer lady in Mr. & Mrs. Smith crossed with a mix of Lara Croft, the daredevil pilot from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the witch-goddess of Beowulf. (Oh, and her Tigress in Kung Fu Panda.) Densely tattooed, richly skilled in the automotive and firearm arts, Jolie's Fox reeks of a take-charge sexiness we might call feminismo. When, to make a point, she kisses Wesley in front of his perfidious girlfriend, you can almost hear the curling of toes of every comic-book guy in the audience; the nerd ecstasy is that palpable.

Exegetes of Millar's graphic novel may cavil at some changes. The true function of the Fraternity, explained early in the comic, is held back as a third-act twist. (If you don't want to know, don't even read the teaser synopsis on the movie-tie-in book's cover.) Some moviegoers may cringe at the number of subsidiary lives ended, and innocent autos totaled, in the big action sequences. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, die in a train wreck while the members of the Fraternity pursue their killer games. But here's the thing: it's a fabulous train wreck, and the laws-of-physics-flouting car-nage is beyond kewl.

Moreover, all the mayhem fits into Bekmambetov's visual strategy. As he demonstrated in the Night Watch-Day Watch series (which also concerns a team of superior beings battling in a grungy modern city), he's masterly at creating a dense world where soaring fantasy collides with mangy realism. He takes the try-anything brio of classic Hong Kong action filmmaking — slo-mo, speedy-mo, disorienting overhead shots, the whole lexicon of cinematic hyperventilation — and adds his own precision and an acrid, puckish sense of humor.

Here he's working with a heftier ($65 million) budget and shooting mostly in the Czech Republic under Hollywood supervision, but the movie is pure Bekmambetov, as odd and beguiling as his home-grown stuff. He still has the ability to bring wit to the most sadistic scenes, in a way that leavens the violence, lets aggression approach artistry. You see it in a brief scene where Wesley finally takes revenge on his cheating friend and whacks him with a computer keyboard. The letters come loose and, tumbling slowly in air, form the letters F-*-*-* Y-O-U — except that the U is one of the victim's dislodged molars.

A few early reviews have criticized Wanted for being derivative of The Matrix. (For what it's worth, Millar says he dreamed up the story when he was a kid.) But the notion of an ordinary, frustrated young person who discovers special powers in strange surroundings is as old as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, before that, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — not to mention every fable about a commoner revealed as having royal blood and reserves of derring-do. It's the essential wish-fulfillment template: start in drab, constricting reality; hyper-drive into heroism.

The other argument against Wanted is that the plot not only strains credulity, it breaks through the strainer and plops like pulp in the kitchen sink. Note to critics: Not every work of popular art needs the mathematical precision of a Mozart sonata. It's true that the movie is studded with the sort of schemes a genius madman hatches in his basement. (One plan involves peanut butter, tiny bomb jackets and the use of rats as suicide bombers.) But if you have trouble accepting, even as a fantasy premise, that "A thousand years ago, a clan of weavers formed a secret society of assassins," fine, don't believe it; just sit back and watch the dazzle of images and collisions in a film that it both preposterous and, in its visual verve, Mensa smart. It makes the only kind of sense it needs to: movie sense,

That may be insufficient, or excessive, for some audiences. In which case, go see WALL-E. (Go see WALL-E anyway — it's the year's most enthralling movie.) But Wanted doesn't care. While it's manufactured for the young male demographic, it's aimed, like a Saturday Night Special ready to go BANG!, at the Hollywood establishment. The director is saying there are other, more daring ways to feed meat to the fanboys. The film is Bekmambetov's challenge to the more traditional members of the action-film fraternity. The final words of Wanted might be his: "What the f--- have you done lately?"

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