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Film Review: Wanted

Wanted (2008; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov)

Digit-pushing Chicago account manager Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), we are told rather inelegantly at the opening of Wanted, is a pussy. He is terrorized in the workplace by his insufferable plus-sized female boss (Lorna Scott) and at home by his nagging girlfriend (Kristen Hager). The latter cuckolds him, too; she’s cheating on him with his obsequious best friend from work (Chris Pratt), who borrows some of Wesley’s dwindling funds to buy condoms and energy drinks to enable the affair. Dissatisfied with his lot but afflicted by strange, time-slowing anxiety attacks that prevent corrective action for his daily emasculation, Wesley amounts to little more than an anonymous, exploited cog in the grinding machine of faceless capitalism, a depressed drone in the thrall of multiple buzzing hive queens.

This is not a Mike Judge movie, however, but a Timur Bekmambetov one. So, of course, Wesley is actually the son of a master killer who was also a member of a top-secret order of assassins called the Fraternity. Founded in the distant medieval past by a guild of weavers in a Moravian monastery, the Fraternity receives its targets in cloth binary code from the Loom of Fate, and executes these supposedly universal-balance-restoring hits with extreme prejudice and bullet-curving awesomeness. Why, precisely, Moravian weaver monks decided to disregard their holy orders to become determinist contract killers is perhaps elucidated in the comic series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones on which Wanted is loosely based, because it certainly isn’t elucidated in the film itself.

Elucidation is not the point here. The point is that Wesley’s dad was a badass, and he is destined to be one as well. Recruited by the swaggering, tattooed Fox (Angelina Jolie), Wesley learns the darks arts of the Fraternity, which is based in a monastic-castle-type textile plant in an industrial stretch of the city. He is beaten to a pulp repeatedly, given knife training by a hulking butcher (though he only ever uses a blade against that same butcher), tasked to snatch a flying shuttle from a running loom, and taught to bend bullets around obstacles with his mind (his apparent anxiety attacks are related to these latter abilities).

He’s also educated on the history of the order and his obligations to its tenets by the stentorian Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who mostly hangs around an enormous library and speaks authoritatively, as such Morgan Freeman stock characters are wont to do. Sloan tells Wesley that he is the only one who can take down Cross (an almost mute but still smoldering Thomas Krestchmann), the rogue agent who allegedly killed his father in the film’s opening scene, but first he must take out a few targets to hone his chops. Wesley chafes at the bonds of Sloan’s mentorship and does not entirely trust his motives, which turns out to be a good instinct, as not all in the Fraternity is as mystical and pure as it seems.

Anyone who’s seen Night Watch or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter knows that Bekmambetov is a skilled purveyor of stylish, physically-impossible action sequences, and Wanted demonstrates his mastery of the form better than any of those films. The tricks deployed here are sometimes ridiculous but nonetheless imaginative and thrilling: Wesley flips his car lengthwise over a stretch limousine to shoot down a smoking fat cat through the sunroof; another agent force-jumps out of one skyscraper into another, blasting goons as he hangs in the air; Wesley, Cross, and Fox battle through a European commuter train which ends up suspended from a bridge over a mountainous chasm. The latter scene predicts ­Vampire Hunter’s climax on a burning railroad trestle, and Wanted is also dotted with a production design tapestry of urban decay that characterized Bekmambetov’s Russian vampire epics.

What gives Wanted an extra step on the director’s other work is his lead actor, the ever-worthwhile McAvoy. So perfectly cast as a downtrodden urban office drone (he wrings humour and even pathos out of these stultifyingly churlish moments), the utilization of James McAvoy as a bullet-bending action assassin is so utterly incongruous as to be sort of perfect. The ludicrous mismatch with the implausible action kitten Jolie (deployed as a sort of deadly and oddly sexless doll by Bekmambetov, which is as reasonable a solution to the problems her gifts create onscreen as any other male-gaze filmmaker has ever come up with) actually helps his case. There’s no real romantic frisson between them, with a showcase kiss intended only as retribution to Wesley’s ex-girlfriend and ex-best-friend. She’s the ornamental female to the action-figure male, all part of the masculine fantasy aspect of the entire project, and McAvoy embraces and skillfully embodies the role of the nervous regular Joe turned manly super-assassin as surely as Jolie effortlessly slips into sex symbol mode.

Ideologically, however, Wanted is a horrid discursive tract. The blunt force trauma of its critique of capitalist labour is only intensified by the fact that its director is a former Red Army artillery officer. The film is mostly uninterested in any sort of Marxist anti-capitalism, however, locating the real tragedy of the systemic imperatives in a wider cultural castration of male agency and curbing of masculine self-expression.

Wesley is miserable because he doesn’t know who he is; the Fraternity (male-coded from its name down, although it has non-male members) gives him a powerfully phallic identity, tied inextricably to penis-extension weaponry and patrilineal inheritance. His male empowerment leaves him in an unequal, even misogynistic relationship to the women around him, who are either sexy but unknowable professional collaborators like Fox or castrating figures to be overcome like his boss and his girlfriend. What Wesley inherits from his father (who is not who Wesley is told he is at first, and who he ends up killing in an Oedipal twist) is a lone wolf mastery of cool-headed violence and its attendant masculine independence. This new identity has no use for women who are anything other than sexualized vehicles for pleasure; how convenient that Angelina Jolie is present, then.

Wanted, therefore, is stylish in its application of violent imagery but objectionable in its conception of that imagery as necessarily related to chauvinistic patriarchal structures. The signature moment of the problematic discourse it feeds off of (and into) is the first kill of the movie, featuring an East Indian businesswoman shot through her forehead by a sniper rifle, the gun’s red dot sight lining up with her bindi. It’s an instance of crude, cruel visual wit that contains overtones of misogynistic violence and snide ethnic humour. It’s a “cool” beat in a “cool” action movie, but the discourse that lies beneath it, and beneath Wanted in general, is much less palatable.

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