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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 28, 2008

At first glance, “Wanted” would appear to be just another hyper-stylized shoot ‘em up in the style of any of the dozens of similar John Woo rip-offs Hollywood has trotted out over the last fifteen years. Was there anyone who didn’t cringe at trailers depicting yet more two-handed pistol trickery, preposterous displays of acrobatics, and some nonsense about curving bullets in flight? And yet, for all of its shortcomings, “Wanted” is a strangely enjoyable flick.

Loosely based on the comic series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, the movie retains some of that story’s elements: oppressed office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) copes with his miserable existence by downing anti-anxiety meds and ruminating about a greater destiny. It is therefore a real eye-opener when he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), one of a fraternity of elite assassins cleverly referred to as the Fraternity. Fox introduces Wesley to Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who tells the young man he has a rare physical condition that allows him to speed his heart up and increase his reaction speed (one begins to understand why they hired Freeman, for who else could lend this claptrap such gravitas?). In addition to this dubious cardiovascular upgrade, Wesley learns his father, who passed these traits down to his son before abandoning him shortly after birth, was also a member of the Fraternity.

It turns out Dad was recently murdered by a rogue assassin named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), and it’s for this reason that the Fraternity reaches out to Wesley, believing him the only one capable of defeating the bad guy. Wesley realizes this is a chance to escape his soul-numbing existence and, after some initial reluctance, enters the Fraternity. “Wanted’s” second act deals with his indoctrination and training, a highly amusing series of near-death experiences, all leading to his eventual showdown with Cross.

“Wanted’s” greatest asset is director Timur Bekmambetov’s (in his English-language directorial debut) willingness to acknowledge the film’s utter goofiness. As in “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” Bekmambetov proves perfectly willing to stretch the limits of incredulity, though we mostly find ourselves playing along. Much of the credit also goes to McAvoy, the audience’s wide-eyed alter-ego, who doesn’t have to be led by the hand through the movie’s ridiculous plot so much as kicked in the a*s. A more conventional leading man couldn’t have pulled Wesley off with as much humor, and the former Mr. Tumnus acquits himself quite well in his first foray into action hero-dom.

Jolie causes something of a dilemma, however. She’s always been a pretty good actor, and eminently watchable even in weaker movies, but her skeletal state here threatens any marketing plan Universal has based on her sex goddess status. The scene where she emerges naked from a “healing vat” prompts gasps, sure, but it’s thanks to her emaciated lack of curves rather than any titillation. I’m no doctor, but I don’t think your wrist and your upper arm should be the same circumference.

When it comes down to it, I liked “Wanted” for its message, which – near as I can explain it – boils down to “better living through gun violence.” Tired of your dead-end job? Driven to the edge by your idiot boss and tramp of a girlfriend? Sounds like you need some firepower. Sure, it’ll help if you have some freak genetic anomaly that greatly enhances your senses and reflexes, but unlike “Fight Club,” which tried to justify its violence in the name of anti-consumerism, “Wanted” realizes all most of us really need is to bust a few deserving heads. And as Gibson’s final line makes clear, a few judicious murders are a lot less offensive than simply sitting on your a*s and succumbing to your pathetic fate.

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