Thursday, 26 June 2008

Because the last thing you want is for the Masons to be mad at you

I have to say that the abiding memory I take away from Wanted is actually the trailer for "Hellboy 2, the surpassingly dumb title". Hellboy will fight the Golden Army this time, because, as John pointed out, the trade name Golden Horde is already spoken for. Not more than a minute after that side of the mouth wisecrack, we were treated to a title card for Wanted, which explained to us that a thousand years ago a society of weavers had set up a fraternity of assassins. "Weavers", I said from the side of my own mouth, "because Masons would have been ridiculous".

The thing is that the next day when I was giving the obligatory rundown to my female colleague, I actually spent more time explaining the trailer for Hellboy than I did on Wanted, your feature presentation. And it was quite simply because although Hellboy 2 will probably be dumber than a bag full of very dumb things, it's brought to you by the man who made Pan's Labyrinth, and more usefully, the man who made the creature effects for Pan's Labyrinth. And the signs are that Guillermo rang up his creature guy and said "Hey, remember the Faun from Labyrinth? Well, this time I've got a TONNE of money." It might be that rare film which is worth watching just for the sake of going ooh ah at the creature effects.

Meantime, Wanted. Brought to you by the same lunatic who brought us DayWatch and Nightwatch. I'm not sure what kind of movies they had in Russia under Communism, but there was obviously something they needed to get out of their systems after communism. Timur Bekmambetov does two things in ways which no-one in the West does. He does grotesques and ordinary ugly people just getting by, and he does action sequences which have absolutely no point other than to be action sequences. When he made Nightwatch and Daywatch he was making films out of some of the most popular fiction in Russia since Tolstoy retired to the farm. The books don't really lend themselves to film - they're full of brooding and doublecross and reflections on Russian pop music and they're short on action. Timur Bekmambetov decided to plug the gap by making some action up. The films are great fun, but if the books had had the same kind of fanbase as Harry Potter, Bekmambetov would have been publicly murdered by a firing squad of demented children firing bazookas loaded with polonium before a baying crowd of fanboys on live syndicated satellite TV. Because, pretty much, he just took the core concepts of the books and threw in as much weird stunt action as he thought he could get away with.

Wanted is apparently based on a comic book, which means he had even more leeway to just throw cool crap at the screen and chuckle to himself.

It opens with a whole bunch of people getting shot in slow motion. We've got so numbed by violence in the movies that we don't really notice the results any more unless someone goes to immense trouble to hammer home the point that getting killed is something more than the punch line to choreography, and for people who find that kind of thing worrying, Wanted is going to be more disturbing evidence of where it's all going horribly wrong. One person get shot in the head in the first two minutes. In short order, four more get shot in the next four minutes. Then the guy who shot those four gets shot in the head from three miles out. Two points to note; although the whole shooty bit is thrilling and cleverly staged, the best bit is that the first person to get shot provides a tremendous sight gag which I kind of saw coming. She's a Hindu, with a small red caste mark on her head. And a few seconds after we first see her, the caste mark seems to light up slightly before we realise that it's not just a caste mark - it's a caste mark which has been lit up by a laser sight. And off we go.

Initial shooting out of the way, we turn to real tragedy; we're introduced to James McAvoy's character and his terrible, terrible, how very like our own, life. He's a cube rat with an overweight malevolent boss and a job which makes dead end seem like an aspiration. His best friend takes advantage of him - not only is he banging our hero's shallow shrill and self-absorbed girlfriend, he's getting him to pay for the condoms. Because no-one in the audience, not even me, has actually shot anyone in the head from three miles away, and everyone in the audience hates their job and thinks their friends stiff them on split restaurant tabs, the quarter of an hour or so in which we see Wesley Gibson's miserable life of non-adventure is considerably more upsetting than all the stuff which went before it, not to mention the hundreds of deaths still to come.

Then enter Angelina Jolie, who shoots up a pharmacy, trashes a sportscar and generally injects a preposterous level of action into extracting Wesley from his life of tedium and introducing him to his destiny. Duh, didn't I see this in Matrix? Never mind, it's sort of fun anyhow. Actually, it's huge fun. Jolie isn't my idea of a great actress, but she has a languid athleticism which is perfect for this role - for as long as she's on screen, she's effortlessly the most compelling thing there. It's a larger than life character, and Jolie is a larger than life actress. She moves quicker than everyone else, but somehow makes it seem as though she's taking her time, and she maintains through almost the entire movie an air of amused detachment. You'd think that in a movie with James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman in featured roles, the compelling acting would be coming from the serious actors - but this is a dumb movie, and in a dumb movie, the compelling performances are going to come from the people who look like they're in on the joke, not the guys who are trying to get into character.

The structure is simplicity itself; naif is inducted into organisation, faces gruelling training, becomes a stronger person, confronts the bad guy, comes to question what he's been told, winds up once more alone. It's been done a hundred times. What makes Wanted fun is that along the way it pulls off some giddy setpieces of pure amoral action. Wesley becomes an assassin, so he has to go killing people. But the killing is an afterthought - the energy has gone into contriving absurd methods of shooting the hapless victims. So the first one has to be shot from the roof of a moving train as it curves past the building in which the target is holding a meeting. The second is in a bulletproof limo, whose only vulnerability is its open sunroof. Wesley contrives to flip his car in a somersault over the limo so that he can shoot down through the roof while spinning through the air and into a perfect landing. It's so audaciously bananas that the cinema laughed out loud. The dead guy wasn't even a punch line.

Having set us up the bomb, it's time to move to the really BIG setpieces, the first of which involves a shoot out on a train. Which culminates in the complete destruction of the train (and I'm watching it thinking a) isn't this stolen from King Kong? Or Jurassic Park 2? b) if this crevasse is that insanely deep, how in the name of God did they build the bridge that's spanning it, not to mention WHY?). Hundreds of passengers get killed, but miraculously the name cast survives, and the film focuses on their problems rather than the worst train disaster in Western Europe since the end of the second world war.

The aftermath of the crash leads to portentous revelations and one big cathartic shoot out at the villain's lair. Which is choreographed as a bastard cross between the Lobby Demolition Scene in the Matrix and all of Shoot Em Up although the body count feels even higher than both put together. It's one long saga of people getting shot stabbed and bludgeoned, and it ends in a Mexican standoff which for some unaccountable reason forgot to have a shout out to the prince of the circular firing squad, John Landis. As shootouts go, it rates points just for having more New York reloads by a single character than I have ever seen before. In the LDS of Matrix, (which is one of my great guilty pleasures) Neo throws away gun after gun as they empty. Wesley doesn't just throw away his guns when they run dry; he finds ever more inventive ways to grab spare guns off other people and go right on shooting with them. The nagging problem is that the people getting whacked are people who we've already seen depicted as perfectly decent types. This is another one of those scenes that makes Wanted a guilty pleasure at best.

And we roll through the climax to the epilogue and closure, and a vague "Well, everyone being all dead and everything, Wanted 2 doesn't seem that likely now does it." But who knows?

John, as is so often the case, has the last word. Mid way through the film, Wesley quits his job and tells his appalling boss what he thinks of her before yanking out the cable of his ergonomic keyboard and stalking out of the office with it. And his ghastly best friend gets in the way with fake congratulations, whereupon Wesley smashes him in the face with the keyboard. And as loose keys and teeth fly through the air, they briefly spell out FUCK YOU. I mentioned this to John afterwards, and he said "Good thing it was one of those ergonomic keyboards. You know, with two U keys."

That's Wanted. It's flashy, and it's fun, but it doesn't really stand up to close inspection.

PS: Much later, I watched this again on DVD, and realised that the second U was one of Wesley's buddy's molars. So I was wrong. As usual.