Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wanted by no one

Right, so last week I was bemoaning the 90 minutes of my life I would never get back after watching the movie Wanted, and I stopped short of explaining exactly what made it so execrable in my opinion. I shall hold forth on that subject … now. I had said last week “spoilers follow!” but then spent all my time just babbling about how various movies came into the orbit of my awareness and never got down to narrative breakdowns. This time, though, for reals, spoilers. Also be forewarned that I’m going to have no choice but to use some NSFW language along the way, partly because it’s an actual plot point in Wanted, and partly because I can only wallow in garbage but for so long before I curse like a barge captain.

So here’s the biggest flaw with Wanted, in a nutshell. The story starts with a protagonist who is absolutely pitiful, working in a thankless white-collar cubicle-rooted position for a stereotypical harpy of a boss, having panic attacks for no reason which require prescription medication to deal with, living in a tiny crappy apartment with a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his own best friend. Clearly this is meant to be emblematic of modern life in general and the crap we all swallow daily, if slightly exaggerated for effect. The story ends with the protagonist having found a way to rise above his humble beginnings and take control of his life by transforming it into something grander, namely embracing his destiny as a super-powered assassin. This is meant to be awesome, though I would argue that it’s not for various reasons (not all of which necessarily are about blanket condemnation of assassins).

Now the way the protagonist gets from the start to the end is, by and large, a bunch of nonsensical garbage, but as I’ve said before I don’t have a huge problem with that as long as the plot is irrelevant and the movie has something else to offer. Wanted tries to substitute comprehensible story development with its own swaggering philosophy that probably means to Say Something Important and a final line of dialogue that no doubt was intended to Really Make You Think. But the movie fails, and a lot of that failure can be attributed directly to the fact that the movie woefully undercuts its own supposed philosophical viewpoint at every possible opportunity.

When we meet Wesley, the aforementioned protagonist, and through at least the entire first half of the film, he is referred to as a “pussy” countless times: in his own interior monologue voiceover, in harangues delivered by the other assassins reluctantly training him in their arts, and so on. In the movie’s own estimation, ignoring evidence of infidelity rather than breaking up with one’s horrible girlfriend is a pussy thing to do. Never standing up to an obnoxious boss is pussy. Taking medicine is pussy. Basically any form of following the rules, going along to get along, and blending in is pussy. And the opposite of being a pussy is being a stone-cold killing machine. I actually kind of get that; I think it’s wrong-headed and trite, but I understand the impetus that would lead someone to say that almost every aspect of modern Western society is inherently emasculating and humiliating and soul-crushing for the everyman, and the only way to throw off the shackles is to completely opt out and stop following the rules, all the rules, up to and including bedrock fundamentals like Thou Shalt Not Kill. The only way to be your own man with your own righteous power is to say the hell with everyone else. Murder others at will, or the collective will of others will slowly kill you.

But that’s not where Wanted goes with it. Wesley gets introduced to a secret society of assassins because his father (whom he never knew of course) was a member but was recently killed and the legacy must be passed down and blah blah blah. Then comes the big twist: these assassins? They’re really the good guys! They don’t kill indiscriminately, or for personal gain, or for philosophical freedom or anything like that. They get orders from the hands-down absurdest Macguffin of all time, a magic loom that spits out people’s names in binary code (derived from out-of-place threads being over or under the weave) and those names are always people who will at some point in the future kill more people, so by sending the assassins after those fated murderers the loom is saving lives and preventing all of civilization from collapsing into chaos. Or something like that. There’s tons of contrivances and coincidences to back all this up, but the point is Wesley trades being a pussy who works at a computer under the guidance of an unpleasant human being for the glory of being a dude who works with a gun under the guidance of a loom which only communicates in cloth. Progress, I guess, but not really a revolution. He still has rules he has to follow, he’s still part of a larger group (the Fraternity of Assassins) he has to go along with to get along with. His existential situation hardly changes at all.

The irony here is that this is essentially the movie itself pussying out. It might have started as a really interesting examination of what power is and how modern society neuters people and only through extreme transgression can the self be reclaimed, but it ends up being the most bog-standard version of the hero’s quest, where the protagonist ends up fighting to save lives, a figure as noble as a soldier or policeman or fireman, just one who uses pre-emptive execution of scumbags to let the rest of the world sleep peacefully at night. Lame.

Also in the comics The Fox is drawn to look like Halle berry, not Angelina Jolie.
Actually, I know exactly where Wanted started: as a comic book miniseries, albeit one you would hardly recognize if you read it after seeing the movie. I read it years before, but tellingly I could only remember the premise and not how it all ended. (I have since looked up the ending on Wikipedia and said “ah, yeah, that’s right.”) The premise of the comic is that Wesley’s long-lost dad was not just an assassin but a deadly supervillain, and the Fraternity is actually all the supervillains in the world, who have conquered said world and eliminated all the superheroes without the general populace noticing. When Wesley inherits his father’s legacy, it’s not so that he can protect innocents by strategically taking out the worst of the worst. It’s not for any greater purpose at all. He just goes nuts breaking the law with impunity satisfying his every desire with the entire Fraternity’s backing, making sure he never has to face any consequences whatsoever. That is some ballsy anti-hero wish-fulfillment storytelling! I can at least respect it for setting up the law-abiding pussy/law-breaking rockstar dichotomy and following through with it no holds barred. The mini eventually got bogged down by an actual plot where there was a civil war within the Fraternity and Wesley had to pick sides and fight for his life and so on, but said side-choosing was never presented as the contrast between right and wrong, just between his wants and the desires of others, and ultimately his own survival.

Wanted, the movie, is only loosely inspired by this but does climax with internecine fighting in the Fraternity of Tablecloth Sewers, where it turns out the head assassin was deliberately mistranslating the thread-binary and sending the other assassins out after targets who were not tomorrow’s evil-doers but simply today’s income-generating rub-outs. (How exactly this worked as a one-man conspiracy, and where the hell the Fraternity got its money before it started taking on profitable hit-jobs, is never addressed, shockingly.) The most surprising thing about this cliché everything-Wesley-thought-he-knew-was-a-lie development is that it turns Morgan Freeman into the bad guy, so it’s slightly harder to see coming. But still stupid. After the big battle – where Wesley slowly but surely revenges himself on all the assassins who were hard on him when he was training to be one of them – Morgan Freeman gets away, which seems to set up the inevitable sequel …

… until the last few minutes in which Morgan Freeman reappears in Wesley’s old office, trying to get the drop on Wesley, but the guy in the cubicle is a decoy and Wesley, shooting from miles and miles away with an outlandish gun and his own super-assassin powers, blows Morgan Freeman’s brains out. Then the film runs backwards but follows the trajectory of the bullet (rather than Morgan freeman’s reverse-dawning realization of who’s pwning whom) and ends up back in Wesley’s gun, where he finishes the end of a tedious rant about how life sucks by looking directly at the viewer and asking "What the fuck have you done lately?"; so in its absolute last gasp, the film is still clinging to the completely false notion that it’s being provocative and edgy with its make-the-world-a-better-place-for-your-fellow-man-through-assassination attempt at having its cake and eating it, too.

Even setting aside the whole “murder is awesome! … but must be committed responsibly at the behest of a piece of fortune-telling medieval machinery” philosophical vapidity, the movie commits an even more egregious example of pussying out. The opening sequences are designed to leave no question in the audience’s mind that Wesley’s girlfriend is a bitch, his best friend is a dick, and his boss is a nightmarish monstrosity in human flesh. Wanted, the comic, does this too, by the by. You would think that when Wesley discovers he was born to be a superpowered assassin he would at a minimum shoot and kill his boss, shoot and kill his best friend, or shoot and kill his girlfriend. Possibly all three! And in fact, in the comic version, he does get some explicit revenge on those who have been wronging him. In the movie … not so much. He says some nasty things to his boss and hurts her feelings. He punches his best friend in the face, twice. And he kisses Angelina Jolie in front of his girlfriend. I guess these are supposed to be moments of triumph but they are such small potatoes it’s laughable. And in that film-rewind portion at the end where we see how Wesley made the shot that took out Morgan Freeman, we also see that the improbable path of the bullet (“bending the shot” is part of the quasi-mystical superpowers deal in the movie, just go with it) goes through the hole of a donut the boss is eating and also punctures the can of energy drink that the best friend is drinking while the girlfriend yammers at him about something. So beyond any doubt those characters make it through the movie totally alive, but … the boss is still fat? And the best friend now has to take on relationship drama with the girlfriend instead of just getting action on the side? Are those supposed to be gratifying components of Wesley’s ascension to pure awesome? Or is it actually a way of underlining, “Look, Wesley can shoot anything anywhere at anytime, he could have killed any of those three creeps, but he chose not to … because he’s the sympathetic hero” right before Wesley has the gall to suggest through the broken fourth wall that the audience doesn’t live in the same rarefied air of freedom that he does?

Wanted looks into the darkness in the human soul and not only blinks but runs away in the opposite direction at top speed to comfort itself with the familiar and the bland, then refuses to just shut the fuck up already about how awesome it was that one time it looked into the darkness, man. It calls its main characters assassins but really (and I’d love to think this is a clever play on the phrase “Wanted: Dead or Alive” but it’s probably just coincidence) they’re cowboys, living by their own code of honor and enforcing it with guns, and Wesley wears a white hat the whole time. The movie tries to have it both ways while pursuing neither one particularly competently, and that gets pretty annoying over the course of its running time. And apparently they are talking about producing a sequel; just the other day I saw the following direct quote from one of the screenwriters: “We're writing and basically picking Wesley up a few years after the events of the first movie and throwing him back into that world.”

But that world is a boring mush of contradictions that I can’t imagine anyone would want to revisit.

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