What male cubicle slave hasn't wished he could escape into a life of thrills and intrigue? In "Wanted," James McAvoy plays "doormat to the world" Wesley Gibson, a lowly, cuckolded accountant who Googles himself and finds a humiliating blank page. His bank account is so depleted that the ATM machine heckles him. His apartment is close enough to the train tracks that he can read the commuters' newspapers. When a lithe gunslinger named Fox (Angelina Jolie) pulls him into a life of roaring car chases, frenzied gun battles and a secret assassination society (headed by Morgan Freeman), Wesley learns that daydreams can leave ugly scars.
"Wanted" is an ultrastylish, ultraviolent take on the standard summertime action film from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov ("Night Watch," "Day Watch"). He doesn't obsess over fine points of characterization, hiring overqualified actors to play stick figures and then punching the film into overdrive. He's all about the carnage, and "Wanted" leaves the theater floor slick with blood and broken glass. It's one of the most empty-headed but visually impressive films I've seen in years.
Sloan, Freeman's character, informs Wesley that the young man's father was a legendary assassin for a killing cult formed 1,000 years ago by a society of weavers. You sense that this decision, like most of those shaping the movie, was made because Bekmambetov thought he could make it look cool. So Sloan and Wesley stand beside massive looms that churn out coded directives about who must be eliminated to protect the social order.
One of the oddball joys of the film is seeing art-house heartthrob McAvoy ("Atonement," "The Last King of Scotland") learn the mystic battle arts of his new profession as he trains with blades, guns and fists. Seeing him do a full-on heroic slide across the hood of a speeding car is like watching Colin Firth pop and lock.
Which is not to say he does it poorly. McAvoy makes his worm-turned-warrior a sympathetic guy, even when he's sending a bullet through someone's temple in hyper-slow agony-vision. He even informs some crazy scenes with genuine emotion. Hanging from a train car teetering over a bottomless gorge, he has a flicker of indecision about whether to kill the enemy who's pulling him to safety. It's a weirdly affecting moment in a sequence of laughably lunatic destruction.
Jolie repeats tricks she perfected in "Tomb Raider" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and Freeman proves he can bring gravitas to the flimsiest of roles.
Working a niche somewhere between the black comedy of "Fight Club" and the ultrafashionable mayhem of "The Matrix," "Wanted" is an experience that's hard to defend as a whole but mesmerizing in a highway-accident rubbernecking kind of way.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186