No one who’s seen Timur Bekmambetov’s flamboyant post-Soviet vampire pictures “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” will expect his Hollywood debut to be a sedate affair, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint with this adaptation of the cult comic by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. “Wanted” is an unabashed testosterone-adrenaline cocktail spiced up with a dollop of torture-porn bloodlust, played out at so frantic a pace that by the close audiences are likely to feel exhausted from the combination of eye-popping effects and their own delighted laughter. Combining the stylized over-the-top action of the Wachowski Brothers with his own brand of in-your-face violence, Bekmambetov’s stateside debut possesses a “wow” factor that will make it one of the summer’s biggest hits among the can’t-get-enough adolescent male audience that provides most of the repeat viewers that spell big boxoffice (though the R rating might actually prevent a few of the younger representatives from getting in). Even the Spielbergian antics of “Indiana Jones” are docile compared to what Bekmambetov has to offer.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s any depth to the movie. The script slims down the original (the superhero/supervillain stuff is entirely gone) and strips away much of its nihilism, but it’s still a dark and simple story of a young man being introduced to his “special” side in a grimmer variant of the Luke Skywalker story of “Star Wars” (the twist at the end pays debt to it, too). After a striking “Matrix”-like prelude in which an imposing fellow called Mr. X (David Patrick O’Hara) is killed after literally leaping between two Chicago skyscrapers to dispose of a slew of gunmen, we’re introduced to James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson, an unhappy office worker put upon by his overweight, badgering boss (Lorna Scott), overdrawn at the bank, subject to panic attacks and being cheated on by his shrewish girlfriend (Kristen Hager) and supposed best friend (Chris Pratt). Gibson’s clearly a pathetic if sympathetic case.
But his life changes when a voluptuous woman, Fox (Angelina Jolie) accosts him in a drugstore to inform him that his father, who abandoned the family when Wesley was a newborn, was Mr. X and a member of a secret society of master assassins called The Fraternity, and had been murdered by a rogue colleague, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), who would now be gunning for him. Suddenly Wesley finds himself in the middle of a firefight between Fox and Cross, which takes to the streets in a wild car chase that ends at the castle that serves as both a textile factory and the headquarters of The Fraternity, presided over by stern, demanding Sloan (Morgan Freeman).
The initially incredulous Gibson is introduced to the ancient organization via some utter gobbledygook about the discovery by weavers a millennium ago of fatalistic messages in the threads of cloth, revealing the names of people who must be disposed of for the good of mankind—and thus become the righteous society’s targets. But that’s merely appetizer to the revelation that as X’s son he’s endowed with a special ability—a Force, if you will—to tap into the same well his father did and become not only master of the trade but the only one who can revenge X by ending Cross’s murderous campaign
That leads to training sessions in which Wesley is brutalized by sadists with monikers like Gunsmith (Common), Repairman (Marc Warren), Exterminator (Konstantin Khabensky) and Butcher (Dato Bakhtadze), as well as Fox, until he’s not only tough enough to endure pain unflinchingly but able to bend the trajectory of the bullets he fires using nothing but his mental powers. Thus equipped, he’s assigned his inaugural kills—which involve such impressive displays as riding the Loop’s elevated trains atop the cars and flipping a standard-issue vehicle over a speeding limo in order to shoot an occupant through the sunroof—before taking off to Europe to confront Cross. There he meets the monastic Pekwarsky (Terence Stamp), who arranges a meeting with his quarry that turns into a spectacular set-piece involving a car, a speeding train, plenty of bullets and fists and an enormous mountain gorge. But it’s also here that the story takes the twist that leads to a last act with more explosive action (including one element that Willard would have loved), multiple deaths and a concluding jolt that takes us satisfyingly back to the beginning. It’s all in the service of turning Gibson into the true heir of his father and a man who’s found his destiny, of course.
The cast seem to be having a wild time cavorting through this nonsense. Holding the picture together is McAvoy, not the fellow one might have considered ideal for an action hero (or antihero) but a good enough actor to make Wesley’s transition from wimp to he-man genuinely plausible. (He also transforms himself from a Scotsman to an American quite effectively—the accent doesn’t fail him once.) Jolie, back in Lara Croft mode, has a couple of great set-pieces to show off in, but is otherwise content to play second fiddle to him, and Freeman once again brings his grave authority to a part that actually has very little meat to it. Support is strong down the line, with Kretschmann making a steely-eyed stalker, Stamp understandably looking much more comfortable here than in the recent “Get Smart,” and the players the director has brought with him from his Russian days providing strong presences.
Devotees of the comics may be disappointed that scripters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan have jettisoned the superhuman aspects of Millar’s work, but the narrative compactness and less bleak (if still cynical) tone they’ve brought to “Wanted” certainly make it a more palatable popcorn crowd-pleaser. And Bekmambetov, working closely with cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, editor David Brenner, and a big effects team, employs virtually every conceivable trick to give scene after scene extra punch and drive. You might describe what he achieves as visual overkill, but it elevates what would otherwise have been a pretty conventional outing into a nonstop ride with all the impact of a session on a mile-high roller-coaster (if just about as much lasting effect). Danny Elfman’s score not only matches the action but adds another layer of energy to it.
The result is a picture that, true to its title, is likely to be very much in demand among audiences this summer. And one isn’t likely to lose money betting on a sequel or two, either.