When I first heard that Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy would be paired up in an action movie this summer, I remember scoffing about what an unsexy couple they’d make. I believe my exact words were, “She’ll crush him like a bug.” “Sounds pretty sexy to me,” said my interlocutor, giving me an unsolicited yet bracing glimpse into his fantasy life.
He was right. For those whose fantasies include being crushed like bugs by Angelina Jolie (or beaten senseless by hulking Russian thugs, or forced to use dead pigs for target practice by Morgan Freeman), Wanted(Universal Pictures) is a compendium of bedside erotica. I don’t know when I’ve seen a mainstream movie that so explicitly caters to the S&M niche. And the chemistry of the central couple, which seemed destined to bring the movie down, is instead the hottest thing in this effects-laden but ultimately empty film.
McAvoy is the delicate-faced, slight-framed Scotsman who seems born to play victims and pushovers. (In the last few years, he’s been Idi Amin’s personal physician in The Last King of Scotland, the sacrificial faun in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the young swain unjustly accused of child rape in Atonement.) And Jolie is, well, Angelina Jolie, the closest thing we have to a real-life superhero. Just think about it: She seems to be everywhere at once, never ages, travels the world crusading for right, and can easily be pictured crouched atop a gargoyle on the Chrysler Building. Perhaps the ultimate coup of Jolie stunt casting was the role of Grendel’s mother, the gorgeous she-monster of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. But Fox, the infallible superassassin she plays here, comes in as a close second.
Wanted’s plot is an overripe brew of elements from The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Da Vinci Code. Centuries ago, it seems, a guild of ancient weavers formed a secret society known as the Fraternity, a band of killers with otherworldly gifts (they can curve the trajectory of a bullet, for example, or heal their wounds overnight in tubs filled with a special molten wax). A textile mill in modern-day Chicago is the last outpost for the society, whose members consult the Loom of Fate (no, seriously) for woven-in-code tips on whom to kill next. None of this has anything to do with Wesley Gibson (McAvoy), a timid accountant prone to anxiety attacks, until he’s spectacularly kidnapped by Fox (Jolie) and forced to undergo Fraternity hazing—that is, training.
It’s during these long training sequences that the movie’s semisecret BDSM subtext is at its clearest. “Not too tight, right?” asks a Fraternity minion, tying the wimpy Wesley to a chair for one of many brutal interrogations as Fox looks coolly on. “No, that’s … nice,” replies our hero, pausing just long enough to get a big laugh from the audience. Plenty of movies (most disturbingly, the new breed of “extreme horror” movies like Hostel and Saw) offer kicks by portraying the suffering of others. But watching someone get his kicks from suffering—especially when that someone is the male action hero with whom the male target audience is presumably meant to identify—is a perverse and refreshing turnabout.
When Wesley, in his words, “grows a pair” and becomes a full-fledged member of the Fraternity, bending bullets and decoding fabric swatches with the best of them, Wanted gets less kinky and a lot less interesting. Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director of the visually spectacular thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch, loves to tease the audience with slo-mo, reverse motion, close-up bullet-cam, and other hammy tricks. Some of these impress by their sheer audacity: After a bad guy gets shot, for example, we watch the bullet travel backwards, out of his skull and back through space and time, into the gun barrel of the man who shot him. Wanted is based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones that are apparently so dark and amoral as to make this movie’s mayhem seem positively Amish. Myself, I prefer action films in which the stunts, however unlikely, adhere to at least some of the laws of physics. But if the graphic-novel-style hyperviolence of Sin City or 300 is your thing, go ahead and knock yourself out. Or let Angelina do it for you … It feels so much nicer that way.