Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wanted Movie Review: Matrix Lite - Not the Same Great Taste, Less Fulfilling

First published on American Madness on 30 January 2009.
Republished here unaltered.

A young man works day in and day out in a soul-crushing office job. He’s thoroughly dissatisfied with his life, which he views as devoid of any meaning. One day he’s visited by a mysterious stranger in the form of a beautiful woman. He is saved from someone who seems to be after him and brought to meet a ragtag team led by a wizened black man who will give him spiritual guidance while training him to free his mind and become a highly skilled fighter and assassin.

If this sounds remarkably similar to another film you’ve seen that’s because Wanted, from Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov in his Hollywood debut, is an action thriller that borrows quite heavily from The Matrix. Call it “Matrix Lite” in the sense that not only are the story and the visual effects inferior (and by no means do I want to imply the effects are bad), but the attempt at infusing the story with philosophical trappings is a laughable mess.

James McAvoy, the very talented and winning actor from Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, plays Wesley Gibson, the young man I described. As it turns out, his father, who walked out during Wesley’s infancy, is also one of the world’s most deadly assassins working for a 1000 year old organization known simply as The Fraternity. In the film’s opening action set-piece he is killed by Cross, another member who has gone rogue and is systematically picking them off one by one.

Wesley, for reasons unknown at first, is Cross’s next target. In steps Fox (Angelina Jolie) to whisk him away to safety, but not before a heart-racing car chase with bullets flying (and bending) toward their targets. Before long he has met Sloan (Morgan Freeman in yet another one of his ‘magical black man’ roles) who compels him at gunpoint to shoot the wings off some buzzing flies. Wesley obliges and succeeds much to his (but not the audience’s) surprise.

You see Wesley has inherited a genetic phenomenon from his father. His heart races up to 400 bpm pumping adrenaline through his body and enabling him to see things in slow motion. The Fraternity wants to train Wesley so that he can take out Cross for them. Sloan thinks he’s the only one capable of doing it. Sound familiar?

All films establish their own parameters for everything from lighting design to acting style. Action films must set parameters of believability. It’s okay to create imaginatively unbelievable stunt choreography as long as everything falls within the set of rules the film creates for itself. The Matrix successfully skirts around laws of physics by placing its world inside a computer program. Wanted starts with a premise of human beings with a slight supernatural ability. Most of the action falls within the believability scale set out by the exposition. But still nothing can explain how a character in one scene is able to take a running start in the corridor on an upper floor of a skyscraper, leap through a window and fly through the air toward a building across the street and crash through its upper floor window. And, oh yeah, shooting people on the roof while soaring.

To be sure, the action is fun, violent and at times quite entertaining. The sound editing is crisp and flawless (although would I have even noticed if it weren’t an Oscar nominee in that category?). McAvoy is a charismatic young actor who handles the role of Wesley with good humor and a bit of panache. Unfortunately his costars are given little to do. Freeman is playing by the numbers here and Jolie’s entire job seems to be standing around looking sultry and then stepping in at the right moment to add a completely gratuitous element of romantic chemistry.

Where it starts to go off the rails is when Sloan starts explaining the origins of The Fraternity going back 10 centuries to a group of weavers who discovered coded messages in their sheets of woven fabric. The messages were interpreted as binary code representations of names – the next targets for The Fraternity assassins. Never mind that binary code representing letters wasn’t first used until about the 17th century. What about those weaving machines? Did those exist in the Middle Ages?

But now I’m getting lost in the details. What’s most important is how the code winds up in the fabric. Is it fate? Is it completely random defects that have been misinterpreted throughout the centuries by megalomaniacal do-gooders attempting to play God? The screenplay (by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan) is based on, but apparently bears very little resemblance to, a Mark Millar comic book series. It wants us to take it for granted that fate controls the destinies of the characters. The Fraternity members take it on faith that the names that come up are people deserving of death. The screenwriters don’t have the ambition to even ask the second question, let alone attempt to answer it. Somehow I have a sneaking suspicion that the comic would provide a deeper exploration of these themes than the sensory overload the film provides.

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