Review: Wanted (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)

wantedIf no one had told you that Wanted was based on a series of comic books, you probably could have guessed it. The film occupies a very familiar space between the sublimely silly and the oddly profound, using lots of visual razzle-dazzle to trick you into lowering your expectations and settling for little more than a fun ride, and then it hits you with plot twists that make you think, “Whoa.” Or at least, “Huh!”

Let’s start with the opening titles, which tell us that the film is about a society of assassins that grew out of a secret “clan of weavers” about a thousand years ago. I must confess I giggled at this, as the concept seemed to be a direct nod to the Freemasons and other legendary secret societies, and the notion of muscular, cold-blooded killers being veterans of the textile industry rather than those who split and carve stone seemed pretty absurd. But as we get to know these assassins, who call themselves The Fraternity, we discover that they serve a higher calling than mercenaries who work for cash or licensed-to-kill superspies who work for national governments; these assassins work for Fate, and they can decipher the will of Fate in the threads that come from their looms. And then I remembered that the Fates, according to ancient Greek mythology, controlled the destinies of men — and even the gods — by spinning, measuring and cutting the threads of each person’s life.

So, there are deeper themes at play here, and the movie, to its credit, is well aware of them, even if it handles them in the pulpiest manner possible. The story itself — credited to Michael Brandt and Derek Hass, who collaborated on the morally ambiguous remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and to Chris Morgan, whose Cellular was one of the more enjoyable gimmicky little B-movies of the last few years — concerns an office drone named Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) who hates his life, and not without good reason. His job stinks, his bank account is practically non-existent, and his girlfriend is sleeping with one of his co-workers, which is something he knows about but is too weak-willed to do anything about. Then, one day, he bumps into a gun-toting Angelina Jolie at the supermarket, and everything changes.

Fox (for that is Jolie’s character’s name) tells Wesley that the father he never knew was killed recently, and that the man who killed his father is right there in the supermarket and about to kill him. And then, of course, mayhem ensues, as Fox and Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), the man following Wesley, exchange a hail of bullets and send various grocery items spilling into the aisles. The fun continues in the parking lot — where Fox scoops Wesley off the pavement and into her car simply by driving towards him sideways with her passenger door open — and then in a chase down crowded city streets, with cars leaping into the air and everything.

The violence is all very stylized, and much of it is clearly the work of computers; this is the sort of movie in which the bullets that people fire at each other sometimes collide in mid-air in slow-motion, so the film is aiming less for suspense and more for a sort of “Wow, cool!” factor. The Fraternity’s members all seem to have been born with some sort of hypernatural ability — it’s not quite supernatural — that gives them super sensory skills, super reflexes and even a sort of super power: by whipping their arms out at an angle as they fire their guns, they can “curve the bullet” so that it goes around other objects and hits the intended target. So you watch the movie not so much to be impressed by all the stunts and suspense, but to see what sort of audacious, over-the-top move the filmmakers are going to come up with next.

Much of the advertising for this film has focused on Jolie, who has had fun with guns and things before, in the Lara Croft movies and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. But this is really McAvoy’s movie. In his past roles, the increasingly versatile McAvoy has tended to be the one who suffers at the hands of others, whether he is Mister Tumnus trapped in the prison of the White Witch (The Chronicles of Narnia), a doctor tortured by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), or a member of the servant class whose life is ruined by the lies of a little girl (Atonement). Here, he is put upon once again, but after the Fraternity adopts him and puts him through a very brutal series of training exercises, he grows into someone tougher and more resilient.

At times he is oddly reminiscent of Edward Norton, another actor who has specialized in playing nerdy, dweeby types who sometimes let their dark side show. In the movie’s opening moments, when Wesley tells us how pathetic his life is, he makes a point of noting that the table in his apartment comes from Ikea, and the links this movie makes between Swedish furniture, an empty and unfulfilling life, and the need to find meaning and purpose in life through violence bring Fight Club to mind. And the film ends on a morally ambiguous note that is reminiscent of the new Hulk.

The moral ambiguity of Wanted is also reminiscent of Night Watch and Day Watch, the two phenomenally successful Russian fantasy-horror-action films that were Kazakh-born director Timur Bekmambetov’s main claim to fame before he made this, his first full-fledged Hollywood movie. But here, the ambiguity is packaged in a tighter, more focused narrative, and it gets increasingly engaging as it goes.

Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the seemingly wise old man who runs the Fraternity, tells Wesley that his cult of assassins is helping to keep balance in the world; when the looms of Fate dictate that someone must be killed, the Fraternity must obey, trusting that their obedience will help to preserve a sense of order in the universe. Fox even tells Wesley a personal anecdote that seems to validate this belief. But alas, the assassins are now engaged in a lopsided civil war — Cross is a former member of the Fraternity who has gone rogue and is now bringing it down, killing one of his former colleagues at a time — and all their attempts to keep the balance of the universe result in lots of property destruction and, we assume, unintended deaths. Eventually the Fraternity’s attempts to eliminate Cross lead to the mother of all train wrecks, and just when you might be thinking, “If this is order, I’d hate to see chaos,” the film throws a few extra curveballs — or would that be curvebullets? — your way.

What happens after that point would take us into serious spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the film raises some really interesting questions regarding destiny, how we submit to it, how we try to control it, and how we can discern it — or even whether we should bother. And it concludes with some really interesting visuals that put a whole new twist on some of its earlier visual and narrative conceits. The film certainly isn’t for everyone, what with its morally dubious premise and its R-rated violence and profanity, and the plot certainly has its share of holes, but for those who like the thrill of shutting off their brain and then discovering that they might be thinking deep thoughts anyway, Wanted is a more than worthy diversion.

3 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. “I don’t know who I am,” says Wesley Gibson at one point. How does joining the Fraternity give him a sense of identity? How does what he learns later on affect his sense of identity? Where does his identity finally come from in the end — from himself, or from someone else? Where does your own identity come from?

2. “We don’t know how far the ripples of our actions go,” says Fox. “Kill one, maybe save a thousand.” What do you make of her statements? Given that she and the others are blindly following the dictates of Fate, how is this similar to, or different from, the idea that the ends justify the means? How so?

3. How is Fate, as envisioned by this film, similar to, or different from, God? Note the scene where Wesley says, “Kill them all, and let Fate sort them out” — which echoes a popular phrase that usually refers to God rather than Fate.

4. What would you do if you found out that the cause for which you had been fighting your whole life required you to lay down your life? Would you do so willingly? Could you continue if you didn’t lay down your life, knowing that you had turned your back on the cause and thus on the source of meaning in your life?

5. What do you make of the final scenes, where Wesley says he used to be “pathetic” like us but now he is “taking control” of his life — and then he asks us what we are doing. Do you find Wesley’s remarks challenging? Taunting? Do they inspire you to do anything differently? Do you find his example off-putting? Explain.

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Wanted is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language (almost all of it four-letter words, only a couple divine names taken in vain) and some sexuality (a man’s naked rear end as he has sex with a woman, the back of a naked woman as she rises from a healing bath). Also, an assassin targets a Hindu woman by lining up his laser sighting with her bindi, or the red dot on her forehead.

— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

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