Few films have accepted the role of “Matrix” knockoff with such gusto as “Wanted.” Considered generically, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the two: Both feature loser cubicle monkeys trapped in meaningless lives only to be rescued by a leather-clad vixen; both feature a wise, mysterious black mentor; both feature highly stylized gun battles choreographed to within an inch of their lives.
Also, like “The Matrix,” “Wanted” makes you question the deeper things in life. What is free will? Is it moral to kill one person to save 1,000? Most important: Is it more plausible that we’re brains in vats serving as batteries for a malevolent artificial intelligence or that fate is spinning assassination orders for a group of hit men into fabric imperfections?
That’s what we’re dealing with in “Wanted.” Conveniently left out of the clever marketing campaign focusing on a “brotherhood of assassins” and killer car chases is the ludicrous crux of the plot, namely that Morgan Freeman is being given orders to kill people by … a loom. The messages are delivered via imperfect threading magically woven into fabric.
James McAvoy stars as Wesley Gibson - the aforementioned cube monkey - who finds himself caught in the crossfire of two expert assassins. On one side is his would-be savior, Fox (Angelina Jolie); on the other is Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), an excommunicated member of the Fraternity, a secret guild of assassins led by Sloan (Mr. Freeman).
The Fraternity’s 1,000-year-old secret is the ability to raise one’s heart rate at will, flooding the brain with adrenaline to make seemingly impossible acts look impossibly cool while you perform them. Gibson learns that his murdered father was a member of the guild, and he possesses the abilities of its members. From here, the fun begins.
Taken on its own terms, “Wanted” is a success. It’s a fast-paced, stylish action adventurer with a pleasantly comic sensibility and better-than-expected performances for this fare.
Mr. McAvoy in particular impresses, as does the motley assemblage of assassins who serve as his mentors. Miss Jolie and Mr. Freeman, of course, are quite good, and director Timur Bekmambetov wrings memorable performances out of rapper Common and a pair of Eastern Bloc character actors by the names of Dato Bakhtadze and Konstantin Khabensky.
What relegates “Wanted” to the tier of “Matrix” wannabes rather than a tier of its own, though, are the unexamined deeper issues. When Gibson questions his new vocation, Fox lays out the basic calculus before every guild member: “Kill one, and maybe save a thousand.” That “maybe” is a key modifier, a suggestion that the guild is not necessarily engaged in a sure thing.
No one would argue against pre-emptively taking out a vicious murderer to save his future victims, but what if the ripples in fate are more tangential? To put it in terms any Philosophy 101 student would recognize: Is it OK to kill the great-grandmother of the next Hitler to forestall genocide? These questions are never really asked, let alone answered.
It’s easy to mock the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, for the sillier aspects of “The Matrix’s” philosophical bearings, but at least they tried for something a little deeper. “Wanted”doesn’t even make an attempt: It is satisfied with pleasing the eye.
RATING: R (Strong, bloody violence throughout; pervasive language; and some sexuality)
CREDITS: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
WEB SITE: www.wantedmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS