Saturday, December 06, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Wanted (2008)

There's no getting around a simple fact. This movie hates you.

For evidence of that assertion, I point you to Wanted's protagonist, Wesley Gibson (Atonement's James McAvoy). He offers a running commentary in the form of a Tyler-Durden-esque voice-over narration. At one point, he opines that he doesn't want to be a "loser like you" (meaning, literally, the people in the audience; the people who paid good money to see this film).

Then, during Wanted's denouement, Wesley breaks the fourth wall, gazes directly into the camera -- brazenly looking us in the eyes -- and asks us what we've done lately to improve our dreary lives.

Well, Mr. Gibson, in response to your call-out, here's a list of the things I haven't done lately:

I haven't heartlessly killed a thousand rats by strapping time bombs to their furry little backs.

I haven't made sport of fat people in front of a room full of co-workers.

And I haven't shot and murdered my own father based on the coded, rotten fruit of a magical loom.

I haven't utilized innocent drivers on public roads as human shields during fierce car chases, either.

And nor have I dragged uninvolved passengers on a commercial train into my personal war with gun-toting, bullet-curving enemies; an act which is directly responsible for their untimely deaths when the train careens down an impossibly huge chasm.

I've seen mean-spirited movies before (one of my faves: From Dusk Till Dawn [1995]), but Wanted takes the cake. This movie isn't merely mean...it's vicious. And actually, to drop an over-used term, it's fascist.

Allow me to explain.

Wanted concerns a young loser, Wesley, who is plucked from a routine, humdrum life of quiet desperation and recruited into a secret society of assassins, The Fraternity. A key aspect of fascism, is, of course, the indoctrination of a follower into an elite organization. Once there, he is made to feel special through propaganda, group-think and military training.


Significantly, Wesley is recruited into the Fraternity not on the basis of his intellect or physical prowess, but rather his highly-treasured blood-line. He carries "the blood of a killer" in his veins, and is, according to the Fraternity - "a caged lion." In other words, the abilities to curve bullets and shoot the wings off of a fly, etc, are inherited traits.

Just as Nazis considered themselves a master race (Aryans) at the top of a racial hierarchy, so does the Fraternity consider itself above the remainder of the feeble human race. You can see this truth expressed in the way the Fraternity's missions are handled: non-Fraternity civilians are tools, pawns, in assassinations. They are to be used, abused, pushed around, but otherwise unnecessary and without value. If they should die in a train fight, well, so be it.

Furthermore, fascists often believe it is their sacred mission to maintain the balance of culture and civilization. In Wanted, The Fraternity maintains such balance with the help of the aforementioned magical loom, "forging stability out of chaos." So the Fraternity knows better than we do. It decides who lives and dies, based on its own beliefs and values.

When Wesley begins to ask for the reasons why certain people must be assassinated, his answer comes in the form of propaganda. Specifically, he learns of the Fraternity's thousand year history, and the secret code of the loom...which spells out on thread the names of those it wants terminated.

And, in fascist tradition, all direct questioning and dissent is met with harsh response. Wesley's trainer, Fox (Angelina Jolie) tells Wesley the story of another Fraternity assassin who "questioned" his orders from the loom and didn't commit the murder he was assigned. The sad result was a dead Federal judge, and a little girl scarred and traumatized for life. This propaganda makes Wesley cowboy up and he proceeds to kill his quarry (a man he does not even know...), without judgment, without remorse, without further analysis. Fox's story discouraged him from seeking his own answers.

The authority of the Loom (and those who control it), is absolute. This is the authoritarian aspect of fascism: the subscription to a dictatorship without question.

Wesley himself becomes the personification of the Nazi (and pseudo-Nietzschean) ideal of the Ubermensch. He is a person for whom pain and and joy soon become inseparable (his training involves both rampant ego stroking and intense physical abuse).

Ultimately, he even becomes the self-appointed arbiter of "new" values. Wesley eventually learns that the Fraternity is evil, and sets about to destroy it, but he does so, significantly, by upholding the fascist Fraternity code. In essence, he simply substitutes his "new" authority for the old leader's, -- Sloan's (Morgan Freeman) -- authority. Never once in the film are the methods - the heartlessness and mindlessness -- of the Fraternity discussed or rejected. Murder is okay. Using human shields is okay. Following the loom's orders are okay. Sloan was evil, because he substituted his will for the loom's. But in the end, that's also Wesley's path.

There's a dangerous wish-fulfillment aspect to Wanted, one that also appears at least quasi-fascist. Wesley is lifted from his hum-drum life, his mind-deadening job as an "account manager" and singled-out as The One. Wesley doesn't need to be smart, he doesn't need to study, he doesn't even need to exercise regularly or eat right to be The One. No, he has a better destiny than that.

And as soon as this obvious fact is realized by society (or by the Fraternity) he is granted instant access to untold riches (3 million dollars), not to mention beautiful women like Angelina Jolie. And...Wesley is handed a gun and told to take away life. Armed with the knowledge that he is The Chosen One (with appropriate bank account), Wesley gets to choose right and wrong. Why? Because, as the soundtrack tells us, "somebody has to pay." Someone tricked Wesley into thinking he was a keyboard monkey; a cuckold.

And all those who wronged him will pay for that. Couldn't they see his radiant greatness? That he was a noble beast, a "caged lion?" That he carries Aryan blood?

If you consider movies to be the dreams of our collective culture, then Wanted reveals that our culture is pretty damn sick. The film is imaginative, to be certain, but it is so in a mean, slick way. The action is beautiful, the special effects a marvel, but the bare soul of Wanted is corrupt. The movie thrives on ugly impulses, on disturbing wish-fulfillment. Let's tell off the boss. Let's show those other lowly drivers on the road who's in charge. Don't get in my way.

I'm better than you, so F U C K Y O U.

Those are the very letters, in fact, spelled-out in mid-air when Wesley caps his best friend with the butt of his keyboard. The letter keys fly at the camera in slow-motion, permitting us to read the epithet.

To get away from these heavier issues, let me mention some of my other reservations about Wanted. For one thing, it seems to have exactly the same plot as Jumper (2008), which featured another person (Hayden Christensen) plucked from obscurity with superpowers and recruited into a long-lived, mythological cult.

I liked Jumper better. Which is saying something.

Secondly, the film cribs all the best lines and concepts from Fight Club (1999), Star Wars (1977) and The Matrix (1999) and throws them into a blender, totally mangling the themes informing those great movies.

From Fight Club, Wanted steals the central character's voice. Wesley, like Tyler Durden is a disaffected worker with a cynical attitude and a catchy turn-of-phrase, one who shows us his messed-up world in scorching voice-over narration. Wesley even has the gall to mention the "Ikea table" he purchased in a catalog, a direct lift from Tyler Durden's catalog-person-rant.

Yet Fight Club concerned breaking out from the so-called Ikea Mentality; from escaping the Planet Starbucks culture. From resisting the carefully programmed hierarchy that asks us to make conspicuous consumption our true God. Fincher's film wasn't fascist. To the contrary, it was violently anti-fascist, urging civil disobedience and even violence in the effort to topple rampant, avaricious, soul-deadening Corporatism. Fight Club tells us we don't have to be servants to the Machine; Wanted tells us that we are losers, and that's all we can be if we don't carry the master bloodline.

From Star Wars, Wanted imports several core concepts. First and foremost is the idea of the son carrying on the legacy of the father. As Luke is to Anakin, so is Wesley to Cross. When Wesley joins the Fraternity he is given his father's light saber...I mean, his pistol. Sloan even says words similar to Obi-Wan's in A New Hope. "This gun belonged to your father."

And of course, Wesley confronts his father in battle, not realizing that it is his actually his father he faces. His father, in the end, turns out to be good...and even saves Wesley's life. But Star Wars concerned the notion of fear, and the way that fear leads one to give into hate, to the Dark Side. Luke was different than his father. He believed there was still goodness in Darth Vader, and refused to kill him. Wesley has no such reckoning. He simply uses the code of the Fraternity to undo the Fraternity. He doesn't come up with a "better" way to win. There is no difference, in Wanted, between the techniques of the good guys and the techniques of the bad guys.

From The Matrix we again see the idea of a work-a-day Joe plucked from obscurity to be "The One." But Neo fought for the survival of the human race, and fulfilled a prophetic role in crafting a new world order. At the end of the day, he truly did bring balance to the machine/human relationship. He brought peace, or at least a truce. In Wanted, Wesley simply uses the tricks of the Fraternity to destroy the Fraternity. But again -- crucially -- the methods and rules of the Fraternity are not overturned by anything better, anything more human or more humane. Wesley's last moment is just a taunt to us. We're losers.

I suppose there might exist critical grounds on which a critic could defend Wanted, but they are all shallow. And they all deny what the film is really about. The movie has awesome special effects. The sound track is rockin! Angelina Jolie is hot. The action is thrilling. The movie is well-edited. The pace is blazing. The movie's just a harmless video game! Why so serious?

Well, according to some people, the Nazis knew how to put on a pretty good show too, didn't they?

Wanted
hates us. And I'm returning the sentiment.

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:29 AM

    Iam so glad somebody finally said it. I saw the movie this summer and was agast.

    Still, youre going to gate hate mail from fan wankers for this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Maybe so. I'm certainly open to hearing about what the merits of the film are. I just don't want to read a million times -- like so many critics said -- how exciting and action-packed the film was. I mean, well yeah, duh.

    Is that enough? I think most critics ducked this movie, or didn't think about what it was about at all.

    That said, I'd love to read a well-constructed positive review of the film...one that doesn't rely on the shallow arguments I noted in the review.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is so sad that this is the kind of movie that makes the big bucks and gets the good reviews nowadays. (no wonder why XF2 got crushed by the critics and did relatively bad at the box office)

    Anyway, I found a review that addresses some of the problems you are addressing john:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2008/06/27/DDK711EC35.DTL

    Maybe you have check it already.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for sending that link. I read the review, and it jibes with my thinking.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous9:52 AM

    Despite what you thought of the film, which did suck, I would recommend the comic mini-series it was based from. If they would have followed the comic, the movie would have been much better.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Awesome movie. Give the director respect by buying this movie on deep discount DVD or Blu-ray.This movie was flat out great entertainment and inspiring.i love this movie...action packed! but it is a movie for entertainment purposes only.. GReat review by the way...keep it up

    ReplyDelete