I’ll take a short break from my Studio Ghibli series. Rest assured, new chapters will soon follow.
There are times I can find myself in agreement with W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-witty tenet that “Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit“. However, I’m pretty sure that should Maugham have had the misfortune to be transported in time only to be forced to sit through the almost nihilistic action film Wanted (stranger things have happened… or perhaps not), he would use the word excess with indeed more careful moderation. For excess is the key word in introducing this film, perhaps assisted by other terms of a Darwinian slash Nietzschean order.
Wanted is made by Russian/Kazach director Timur Bekmambetov, known for his vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch. which were huge successes in Russia and moderately popular in the west as well. It stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. None of these perform their roles better or worse than one should expect. It is based on British writer Mark Millar’s comic book miniseries, which was slightly satirical in its approach to the amoral violence of the characters. The film is content to forego said satire.
I can’t really fault the direction of the film beyond saying that the different set pieces at times lack coherence, not to say logic, and what would otherwise have been impressive stunts disappear in a haze of CGI and breakneck editing. I mention the set pieces, for this is a film that almost doesn’t exist when it is not moving. Fast.
I remember seeing Terminator 2 for the first time and how awe-inspiring I then felt it was. Much of this awe had to do with how Cameron was able to utilize state of the art technology while at the same time making sure that we could actually see everything we were meant to see: We could follow the T1000‘s jump into the helicopter and study each transformation made by the then ground breaking use of CGI.
For some reason many films these days opt to cut so quickly from angle to misused angle, to push the camera into our faces until what we see has little semblance of reality and thus removing us from the illusion that film is indeed a kind of reality. Without this illusion, films become only spectacle and not a very well made spectacle at that. The ability to combine fast action with judicious amounts of CGI in a tangible and understandable manner is an art quickly becoming lost in the action genre. (Let me add that I don’t object to fast editing per se, and neither is the practice particularly new. I recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930- film Murder!, in which the cuts were at times much faster than in most modern films, particularly in scenes where the directors of today tend to linger if they at all venture there; e.g. reaction shots and transitional scenes).
However, Bekmambetov is an accomplished visually oriented director (as opposed to intellectually oriented?) who does have the ability to show us some scenes we have not seen before. The biggest problem I have with the film is the story he chooses to tell, and how he tells it is merely an extension of some deep faults within the story.
James McAvoy’s character starts out as an everyman, although one by far more apathetic than most of us. He hates his job and his girl friend and his life and so on. The fact that he is impotent, both virtually and metaphorically is made clear for us through some unpleasantly juvenile scenes. In fact, let me interject here, that I’ve seldom had a stronger feeling that a film must have been written by a thirteen year old with severe revenge fantasies. The little there is of psychology is so infantile in its insights that it beggars belief. I admit that I laughed out loud a couple of times during the delivery of dialogue in the film, but unfortunately not where the film wanted me to laugh, which I hope was nowhere. “I can now stand in my father’s shoes” was one such line. – I guess you have to see it…
Oh well, our not so lovable loser is quickly torn away from his mundane loser life (yes, the film repeats quite some times that he is a loser) when a mysterious and heavily tattooed woman in the shape and form of Angelina Jolie (which means, I guess, that it must be her), warns him that he is about to be killed, and off they go in a blaze of speed and death defying acts while shooting at the bad guy. Our man learns that she is part of an ancient order of assassins (The Fraternity, they call themselves) that are killing people to maintain some kind of balance on earth dictated by “the fates”. The manner the fates have of dictating to the Order which people to kill is through a somewhat unorthodox medium: A giant loom – the Loom of Fate, no less – is weaving small errors that can be interpreted as binary code. This code spells out the names of the people that need to be extinguished by the assassin order. Of all the ways I have ever imagined the gods to communicate with people, this has to be the most obscure or – all right – most lame.
Loserboy is told that his increased heart rate is not a matter for the doctor, but rather a symptom of his adrenaline granting him superhuman speed and agility and – for some reason – the ability to make killing shots from extremely long distances as well as curve the trajectory of the bullets. Morgan Freeman tells him gravely that “If you had not been told that bullets go straight, wouldn’t you have trusted your instincts to let the bullet find the target in other ways”, or something to that effect. Yes, the film is indeed this stupid.
Then follows the obligatory training sessions for our man, as he is punished and beaten until he is at least as accomplished in the art of killing as his new comrades and Angelina. He kills some people as part of early assignments, having few qualms to do so. (As soon as he learns to trust the Fate, he accepts the rightness and infallibility of the giant weaving apparatus). To turn an inane story short, the person he is told killed his father turns out to actually be his father and Morgan Freeman is evil. On the way to this insight, he has killed his father and an entire train of innocent passengers, seemingly without any regret whatsoever.
I won’t reveal the outcome of “the final battle”, except to say that it turns out that the killing orders that the Fraternity has received for these last years had less to do with any fates and more to do with Morgan Freeman’s ambitions. The film now tells us that to kill for personal gains is wrong, and I actually felt we were on the brink of some US criticism at this point, though of the heavy handed variety. But then the film makes a case for the nobility of killing people if The Fates tell us so (read God), which again is a view not completely beyond the pale in some US presidential administrations, nor in some other countries, for that matter.
No matter, soon the former loser, now super hero assassin James McAvoy stumbles out of the rubble, musing: “Six weeks ago I was ordinary and pathetic. Just like you.“ I can’t imagine a clearer way for the film to signal it’s view on people and humanity; on normality. The last reel of the film has the protagonist, now super human, saying: “This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?”, thereby again stepping out of the reality of the film, so to say, and involving us, the spectators.
This is also where the film becomes interesting, and a part of me almost wants the entire film to be one big hoax, one giant misleading manoeuvre. It reaches this point, spelling out its contempt for everyone watching the film, and instead of giving us a classic end, subverts the relationship between protagonist and viewer. If I had felt there had been present an iota of intelligence at other places during the narrative, I could give it the benefit of the doubt and say that the film is indeed a critique of its own audience.
The film and its protagonist in effect says at this point: “Don’t look at me, look at yourselves. You have seen a film celebrating the more unpleasant notions of the Ubermensch and fascism; it is, after all, good to kill if God tells you so. And you have stuck with me, rooted for me“. What this ultimately means is that the film is now stuck between two positions, one being: “Now, go out and kill. It is liberating.” The other alternative is “You fools, I am no hero for you. I despise you.” Needless to say, the average moviegoer is not likely to want to take the latter to heart, and one can only hope they avoid taking the former statement seriously.
And of course, one probably shouldn’t take seeming fluff like Wanted seriously. But on the other hand, perhaps it is exactly this kind of mindless summer entertainment that is most interesting to subject to at least a minimum of critical analysis. As well as reflecting the needs of society, maybe these types of film also show society as they want it to be.