The battle of the summer comic-book – oops, graphic-novel – movies continues with "Wanted." I enjoyed "Iron Man," mainly because of Robert Downey Jr., and tolerated the far-from-incredible "Incredible Hulk." The first major Hollywood feature from the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, whose "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" were the two highest-grossing films in Russian history, "Wanted" is easily the most cinematically expert of the current crop of comic-book extravaganzas.
But in a way, that's what's wrong with it. The film's high proficiency is at the service of a concept that can most accurately be defined as sadomasochistic. I thought these comic movies were supposed to be fun. The only people likely to devour "Wanted" are wolverines.
Comic-book movies are always quick to remind us that deep down many of their headliners are ordinary human beings like you and me. This isn't quite accurate unless you happen to believe that a bloated green giant or a kid whizzing between skyscrapers in a spider suit or a munitions dealer outfitted like a megacrustacean are human just because they don't defy the laws of physics. (Which, come to think of it, they often do anyway.) But I digress.
Wesley's dreary office job confines him to a cubicle, where his boss harasses him mercilessly. He chomps vegan tofu wraps and gulps vast quantities of panic-attack pills. It turns out his father was a member of an elite cadre of covert assassins known as The Fraternity, an ancient society of weavers that no doubt would give Opus Dei the willies. By minutely examining hidden textile patterns in the Loom of Fate (don't ask), they can divine who is fated to imperil the planet and then proceed to assassinate forthwith. The Frat Rats go by such Cosa Nostra-ish names as the Repairman, the Butcher, and the Exterminator. There's also a sorority sister, the appropriately named Fox, played by Angelina Jolie in quasi-Mrs. Smith/Lara Croft mode. (Her screen time is shorter than the ads would have you believe.)
Inevitably, Morgan Freeman plays the capo of the Frats, and he does so utilizing those plummy, godlike tones on which he's presumably taken out a patent. Freeman is a great actor, but in recent years he's begun his descent into Orson Welles territory – his acting is becoming all about his pipes.
I suspect the reason this cabal is named The Fraternity is to justify the heavy-duty hazing that Wesley is subjected to. This is the sadomasochistic part I was warning you about. In most movies about heroes, there's a certain amount of trial-by-fire stuff, but in "Wanted," Wesley is pummeled, basted, sliced, and diced until he resembles a side of rare roast beef – and that's just by his friends. It's one thing, I suppose, to be subjected to this sort of thing in a comic book. At least there the bloodletting stays on the page. (The wildly popular comic series is by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones.) But violence in the movies, no matter how many CGI effects are utilized, can't help but be far more luridly realistic. And, in the case of "Wanted," to what end?
Wesley's rite of passage into manhood is synonymous with becoming a lethal killer, and Bekmambetov seems perfectly OK with this. His real interest in making this movie is working up more effective ways of depicting splatter. He's trying to one-up Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers.
If we're lucky, "Wanted" won't be. Grade: C- (Rated R for strong, bloody violence throughout; pervasive language; and some sexuality.)