R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Just what this Summer Wanted…

Well before I get started with the bulk of the column, I just wanted to say goodbye to another one of my heroes who passed this week. I think in the back of my mind, every stand-up comedian I’ve ever watched or listened to, I’ve somehow compared to George Carlin. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known Carlin’s routines, thanks mostly to my Dad’s good taste. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Carlin on Campus, Jammin’ in New York, What am I doing in New Jersey?, because as a kid I just watched them over and over until his jokes seemed just be a part of my DNA. I know he got crankier as he went along and to be honest he seemed so high strung on stage that it’s probably some kind of miracle he made it to 71. Now he’s gone. It’s really been sucking a lot lately with a lot of my favorite entertainers being taken away. Godspeed George.

Now back to the business at hand, and the summer just keeps on rolling. I guess right now most of us in the geek community are waiting with bated breath for The Dark Knight, which is just over the horizon, but until then we’ve got plenty more superhero/comic book related movies coming out EVERY week until July 18th. Hancock and Hellboy II are both ready to get out on the on-deck circle, but up at the plate this past week was Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of the Graphic Novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones.

Now at first I kind of met this project with mild trepidation. I know that often times adaptations will have to make changes from it’s original source material in order to have the movie really work on screen, but more often then not we get more Black Dahlia’s than we do L.A. Confidential’s, and I had really admired Millar‘s work. In the graphic novel category, the ratio may actually be quite a bit stronger, especially with movies such as V for Vendetta, A History of Violence and Road to Perdition having been released in the last few years, but still, Wanted seemingly diverts so strongly from the book that had me really worried. On top of that, the film’s release was pushed back to a date when it would be competing directly with WALL•E, so it looked like maybe the studio was perhaps effectively dropping it.

I shouldn’t have really worried at all.

While I would have loved to have seen Millar’s universe where Supervillains effectively take out every living hero in tights and make a new world order under their own rules, the version Bekmambetov and Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma) have come up with is just as effective in its own way. A brutal, funny, furious, nonstop action movie is all one could ever hope for sometimes, and frankly that’s exactly what I got here. R-Rated Action flicks are unfortunately a rarity these days, but with movies like Shoot ‘em Up, 300, Rambo and Wanted still being made it looks like there’s still room out there for adults who like their ass-kickings to be a little more kick-ass.

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Wanted Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, and Morgan Freeman. Directed Timur Bekmambetov

It can be a lot of fun watching geek coming out parties. Getting to see someone’s work just finally explode within the fanboy sect can be an exciting experience, and from then on it doesn’t matter what kind of quality work they did before that moment, from then on they’re the star of Spider-Man or the writer/director of The Matrix in our eyes before they‘re anything else. Fanboy love can be a fickle thing, but when you’re on top it’s a pretty awesome thing to have the geek nation behind you.

I think that’s the feeling that James McAvoy and Timur Bekmambetov are about to go through. Sure, McAvoy has gotten great marks in the past on Oscar contenders like Last King of Scotland and Atonement, but now we’ve seen and like him as a brooding bad ass comic book super assassin. Sure Oscar cred is cool, but better than flipping cars and shooting up scumbags? I think not. Every bit of Action movie street cred McAvoy receives from now on will all be well earned, as his beat up, bloody, bullet curving Wesley Gibson is the type of Action hero I can always get behind.

Just like in Millar’s original Graphic Novel, Gibson is an absolute nobody. Worse than that, he’s not even just anonymous; he’s a complete and utter failure, with neither love nor respect in any corner of his life whatsoever. Let me tell you, working a pretty useless , mind numbing job myself, it’s very easy to see where this character is coming from. From his utter day to day tedium to his ridiculously rude and malevolent boss, it’s easy to put yourself in his shoes.

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Sure, saying that this character is derivative of Neo in The Matrix or Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club isn‘t much of a stretch, but honestly, even if this is heresy, there’s something a little more identifiable in McAvoy’s Gibson then those other guys. Then, out of nowhere, Gibson gets to somehow live out the geek dream. A gorgeous woman shows up and tells our hero that he’s actually one of the most skilled warriors in the world, and that his destiny is to hand out justice and live luxuriously for the rest of his life.

Not only that, we get to see Wesley’s transformation and empowerment unfold in front of us, and its absolutely exhilarating on a level that has been rarely reached this year in cinema, and this is even before the major fireworks of the movie going. Let me tell you, if there ever comes a day where I get to have a cathartic moment at my job the way Wesley has one in this film, I won’t have to become a super assassin afterward, I’ll just be completely satisfied with my life at that moment.

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Also, as you can tell from last week’s column, I’m a sucker for montage training sequences, and this movie’s got a doozy. Characters like Marc Warren’s The Repairman and Dato Bakhtadze’s The Butcher are the one’s you’ll probably remember from this movie the most, because they’re the ones that seem to stick out with the most personality. They each take turns beating the crap out of Wesley, and its fun to watch Gibson go from peon to hard ass as he finally starts to stand up for himself and fight back. I especially love a sequence where Gibson comes at the Repairman with a chair, but then realizes that basically all he has left and kind of stands there punch-drunk. It’s as this point that McAvoy sort of totally wins you over.

I really think this is just the tip of the iceberg for the young actor, and his future in blockbusters, and the same is about to go for his illustrious Wanted director. Like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before him, I believe a Cult director is about to bloom into full Action auteur status. I wish that John Woo had been afforded an opportunity to direct a film with no boundaries in the same way that Timur Bekmambetov has been given a chance to do with Wanted.

Whereas Woo was stifled in the Hollywood system, made to film Jean-Claude Van Damme movies or heavily edited studio projects, and hardly ever afforded the chance to really break out and make a “John Woo film” (Face/Off notwithstanding), Bekmambetov has been given a giant toy-box to work with and a project that allows him to show off his ridiculous visual style. Wanted is nearly as insane as the director’s Nightwatch films, but now he’s able to take advantage of an awesome studio budget to go with his creativity.

It’s awesome to get to watch a movie with the type of reckless abandon that’s found in this one. From the rooftop killing spree early in the film to Wesley’s Wild Bunch style shooting opera to close things out, this is gorgeously filmed mayhem. Heads explode and limbs are broken, but it’s all filmed with gorgeous cinematic precision. It’s just not very often that a movie tries to just go for broke like this, and its wonderful to see such a celebration of Action cinema out there, when so much of the time all we get is sanitized teenage pandering.

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If you’re going to have training sequences, you’ve got to have a wise master to really sell this type of empowerment exercise, and Morgan Freeman’s Sloan fits the bill nicely. It’s funny just how in-tune Freeman is to his own screen presence and cinematic language. As soon as he walks onscreen, he’s completely legitimate as a teacher and friend. We already know he’s a wise veteran that sees exactly what Wesley needs to change his life and become the killer that has stayed caged inside of him. It’s also awesome to watch Freeman break out of that mold a little bit, and the moment where he drops the f-bomb is probably the film’s biggest highlight as a result.

Finally, we also get fairly solid work from Angelina Jolie as Fox. Where Millar obviously saw Halle Berry in this part, Jolie is pretty much the next best thing, and somehow actually brings a warmth to the role that I didn’t expect. This is by far the best Action role she’s ever had, and it’s terrific that she ends up being more than just window dressing. She absolutely makes the best of every character moment she gets in this movie, and if she just goes on to do prestige work from now on, at least we got this last Action Goddess type role from her and she finally nailed it.

For all the good casting and performances though, this movie really comes down to the director. I can’t overstate just how perfect a chance this is for Bekmambetov to get discovered by American audiences. Thematically, Wanted’s mantra of keeping the balance thru violence is very much in keeping with the director’s previous efforts, and his visual style more than lends itself to the hardcore violence of the original material. Where it might run into problems with the fanboy community is the liberties taken with the original story, but I can appreciate just how much this movie kept me guessing all the way to the film’s ending. Sure the movie makes Wesley Gibson much more of a good guy than the book ever does, but to be honest, that just makes him a more identifiable guy than the sadist from Millar’s pages.

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Wanted may not be the best film of the year or anything like that, and it’s not ever the best of the summer (both of those distinctions at this point in time go to Pixar’s WALL•E), but it’s a solid slice of awesome in the middle of what’s turned out to be a pretty decent Summer movie crop, with what may still have the best to come. I was really unsure about it at one point, but all those fears were completely put to rest when the credits finally rolled on Saturday night, and I’m so happy that Timur Bekmambetov has a Hollywood calling card, which may lead to more people discovering his previous works. This guy is the real deal and I’m just glad he’s really gotten the chance to prove it, just like his main character does in the movie.

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