Of the summer's many revenge-of-the-nerd fulfillment fantasies — from The Incredible Hulk all the way down the megaplex food chain to The Foot Fist Way — Wanted stands the best chance of dislodging Fight Club from fanboys' Facebook pages. It has the same dizzying flipbook style, the same kicky ultraviolence, the same undeniable appeal of punch-clock payback — and best of all, no irony! Fed up with your shit job, your bitch boss, your slut girlfriend, your shriveled manhood? Screw reading The Purpose-Driven Life. Embrace your inner hitman and cap a few asses.
The first rule of David Fincher's Iron John uprising was: Don't tell anyone. Fuck that noise (or lack thereof). If Fight Club was a cautionary tale, Wanted comes on like a recruitment video — the story of how a meek, pallid cube jockey, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), morphs from loser to bruiser by joining a secret society of assassins. Though adapted by screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan from a Mark Millar-J.G. Jones comic-book series, its origin lies less in comics themselves than in the old back-of-the-book ads that promised 98-pound weaklings how to find the brute within.
So when shaky, pill-popping Wesley — cheated on by his girlfriend, betrayed by his so-called best friend and berated by his harridan boss at a soul-sucking account-management McJob — gets yanked out of a drugstore checkout line by a lithe hottie with a knack for zigzag marksmanship, he becomes the prime candidate for a hired-gun makeover. Turns out Wesley's absentee father belonged to The Fraternity, a clandestine clan of weavers who have maintained order (all evidence of human history to the contrary) by weeding out the world's undesirables, the names of whom appear in coded fabric. (For delivering this hooey with customary gravitas, Morgan Freeman, The Fraternity's oracular Mr. Big, deserves something bigger than an Oscar — maybe something in the Vatican.) And like his old man, Wesley is a natural born killer — with superhuman reflexes, mad stunt-driving skillz, and death strikes that swerve bullets into serpentine trajectories.
Even with a well-deserved R rating — the Red Cross should develop funnels to catch all the zero-gravity splatter floating in the movie's screen space — Wanted is the most juvenile of the summer's superhero movies, and in some ways the most up-front about its stunted playground machismo (the source of Fight Club's irony). This is a boy's, boy's world. As played by McAvoy, Atonement's aggrieved innocent, Wesley is a cartoon of 'whipped male drudgery, needled by his best friend's smarmy refrain of "He's the man." Women figure into the story as either obstacles or turncoats. The battle cry here is "Grow a pair," and there's no more blood-boiling insult than being called a pussy — which is bizarre, since the most lethal ass-kicker on call is a woman.
Then again, as Wesley's initiate into the otherwise all-male Fraternity, Angelina Jolie transcends gender the way a thermonuclear warhead overrides boundaries. In her video-game-avatar roles, with her sharpened cheekbones, telescopic-sight intensity, and a chest-forward walk like the coming of an icebreaker's prow, Jolie's default setting is an omnivorous, dehumanized take-no-prisoners sexuality that begs for military metaphors. (Even in the softcore tropical breezes of Original Sin, her nipples stood at Defcon 4.) Here, given little to play besides robotic assurance, she sneaks some welcome physical wit into the movie, as in the coolly contemptuous cock of her head when Wesley nearly punks out on the program. But she's there mostly as a presexualized adolescent boy's sex object. Apart from a fleeting nude shot — my crowd responded with a bought-and-paid-for "Yesss!" — her only erotic moment exists to make Wesley look studly to his dumbfounded ex.
At least Wanted, like the giddily preposterous Transporter movies, has the self-awareness to push its incessant CGI into the realm of abstraction. When Wesley exacts revenge on a coworker with a keyboard head-smash, the flying keys deliver a parting obscenity in airborne Scrabble (with a tooth for a blank tile). Photorealism applied to such nonsensical ends produces a uniquely surreal effect — as when pixilated pixie dust allows us the magic of watching bullets pierce flesh from the inside. The director, Timur Bekmambetov, whose Russian vampire diptych Night Watch and Day Watch introduced a little Joel Silver CGI overkill to the cinema of Eisenstein, Ptushko, and Kalatazov, thrives on kinetic hyperbole. Here cars flip like flapjacks and continue unharmed; running leaps cross concrete canyons; a speeding train plunges down a thousand-foot gorge only to go faster.
But the appeal of Bekmambetov's style — that everything exists for sensation, logic and natural law be damned — is also its limitation. Wanted never tops its gee-whiz opening sequence, in which a Fraternity brother takes out a rooftop of bad guys with wicked gun-fu. There are limits even to the number of times this Grand Theft Auto admirer can watch blood slung across the screen in fetishized slow-motion globules. In the end, Wanted may be most notable for cementing the connection between superhero movies and the cinematic craze they have temporarily supplanted, torture porn — both genres that, like Fight Club, address our ambiguous fascination with being powerless and invulnerable at the same time. But Bekmambetov's movie evaporates pretty quickly after it's consumed — something you can't say of Fincher's film, which shadows most every frame of this cowering-male power trip. The first rule of Wanted should be: Don't tell anyone about Fight Club.