1 August 2008

WANTED (Dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2008, US) - Empty, Loud and Very Stupid

Universal Pictures took a real gamble with ‘Wanted’, casting the relatively unknown British actor, James McAvoy in the lead role of an expensive action film with the potential of becoming a prospective franchise for the studio. Directed by the Russian filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, who was the creative force behind the recent Night/Day Watch films, ‘Wanted’ has achieved what it set out to do, which was to successfully launch a franchise and become effectively another commercial property. Currently, the Hollywood action genre continues to be defined by the outrageous Jason Bourne series of films; taut, plausible, and deeply involving high concept cinema, made altogether more superior in their supposedly false realism by Paul Greengrass, a director who has cautiously supplemented his real films (United 93, Bloody Sunday) with reshaping the dynamics of stale, repetitive and formulaic genres like the action film.

Unfortunately, no impulse genuine artistic impulse exists within ‘Wanted’, a film that recalls (steals?) the narrative of the recent Wacahowski cyberpunk film, ‘The Matrix’, in which an aimless computer hacker/drone like office worker is offered the chance of creating a new, alternate identity that is both liberating and fraught with the risk of annihilation. Anybody with just a basic understanding of familiar genre conventions would have been able to offer welcoming suggestions on how the screenplay for ‘Wanted’ should have been thoroughly reshaped and perhaps even placed into the trash icon. The film is plagued by a multitude of creative misjudgements, beginning with a vacuous screenplay that is poorly underwritten with dialogue that appears to have been written for a European action movie starring Van Damme, and delivered monotonously by the reliable likes of Morgan Freeman who incidentally reprises the same duplicitous role from terribly ill fated high concept projects like ‘Chain Reaction’ and ‘Hard Rain’.

The Hollywood action genre has always struggled with back story and characterisation, and ‘Wanted’ is another in a long line of action films that overlook the emotional aspects in favour of retarded set pieces. Everything about ‘Wanted’ has to do with nothing but style, but it is an overly familiar style that we have come across before in countless high concept blockbusters in which style is not even a statement as it is simply too empty and superficial to be anything but a visually banal reminder of the collectively redundant state of the mainstream Hollywood action film. Though Morgan Freeman’s strange miscasting would be just about bearable for audiences, the most fatal of casting decisions is that of James McAvoy, an overrated, merely competent and totally uncharismatic British actor who shot to stardom overnight with the critical success of ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘Atonement’.

In ‘Wanted’, McAvoy plays Wesley King, a feeble accountant stuck in a dead end job, who seemingly unaware of his repressed skills as a lethal assassin, becomes entangled in an uninspired and bereft plot line, involving a nervy and stylishly dressed super feminist (the celebrity that is Angelina Jolie) and a gallery of unsavoury but tiresome archetypal supporting characters who seem to have perfected the art of standing around, knowing how to look ‘uncool’ whilst simultaneously recognising their insignificance to the overall narrative. With the critical and commercial success of ‘Wanted’, McAvoy has been transformed into an unexpected international star, and like Simon Pegg who is currently another rising British star, both have graduated from hit channel four television shows like ‘Shameless’ and ‘Spaced’ to quickly achieve some degree of bankability. Both Pegg and McAvoy are the unlikeliest of film stars as they are bland looking, command zero screen presence and lack any kind of charisma to make audiences identify with them. McAvoy's performance is deeply annoying and though you can understand how his ordinariness would be well suited to the role, his forced and wavering American accent and limited repertoire of physical gestures produces a reaction that borders on irritation.

These days it seems as though an action film is primarily judged on how loud it is and if such superficial criteria is a mark of distinction, then 'Wanted' is a film that revels in it's own stylish excess, failing on all counts to become more than just another ordinary, bland and stupid action film.

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