“I am your father, Luke.”
The Empire Strikes Back
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Written by: Derek Haas, Michael Brandt
Starring: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie
This is the story of a young man who leaves behind a cubicle existence to seize his destiny as a motivational speaker.
I usually stay to watch the credits all the way to the end, but I saw this movie with my Significant Other (henceforth referred to as the Sig-O) and he doesn’t like to do that, so I didn’t stay to see the disclaimer that must have read, “Absolutely no rats were blown up in the making of this movie.” I felt bad for the fictional rats in this movie. I mean, here you are, an innocent rat going about your rat-life, eating garbage and spreading disease, and without warning you are drafted as a suicide soldier in a human struggle of evil against . . . not-so-evil. Is that fair?
We had decided that we wanted to see a movie, and the Sig-O had said, “That killer-for-hire one looks interesting.” He said he thought it would be a thriller; I think he wanted to see it because Angelina Jolie was in it. I wanted to see it because Timur Bekmambetov directed two Russian movies, Daywatch and Nightwatch (from the fantastical novels by Sergei Lukyanenko) which I thoroughly enjoyed. Bekmambetov must have been jumping up and down hugging himself with glee at the thought of making a movie with an American movie budget.
We walked down to the cinema which is about a mile from our house. For the previous week we had uncontrolled wild fires in northern California. The sky had been the color of tarnished silver and walking more than a block hurt my throat and burned my eyes, but this Saturday the air was much clearer and there was even blue at the sky’s zenith. We got our popcorn and settled in for Wanted.
Wanted is loud—really loud; bright, brutal, frenetic, funny and strangely fun. It is stylish as hell. The plot makes no sense, and the laws of physics were checked at the door, but it really doesn’t matter. You root for the so-called hero in spite of yourself, you laugh at the right places, you gasp at the right places, and you don’t feel a need to scream, “I want my life back!” at the end of the two hours.
James McAvoy plays a cubicle rat named Wesley whose father disappeared from his life when he was seven days old. This is the defining fact of Wesley’s existence. The movie employs a lot of voice-over narration, which usually signals to me that the screenwriter can’t tell the story, but in this case it actually works. McAvoy’s slacker-sarcastic comments capture the not-so-quiet desperation of his life. “You know what I like best about the end of the day?” he snarks in one sequence. “Knowing that tomorrow I get to get up and do it all again.” Wesley is on medication for what he thinks are anxiety attacks, but he doesn’t know that his episodes of accelerated heart rate and surges of adrenaline are the result of a genetic anomaly that gives him the reflexes and the heightened perception to be a super-assassin. Two other men in the movie have this ability. Angelina Jolie does not have this super-power. Angelina Jolie’s super-power is being Angelina Jolie.
In large part this is an Angry Man movie, or perhaps an Angry Young Man movie. It reminded me simultaneously of Fight Club and An Officer and a Gentleman. Wesley’s live-in girlfriend is having sex with his so-called best friend at the office; Wesley knows this and does nothing. He chews his anti-anxiety meds by the handful. This brings him to the drugstore one night where he is accosted by Fox (Jolie) a super-assassin who wears too much eye make up and tells him that the master assassin who killed his father the previous day is now after him and is, in fact, lurking behind the reading glasses display right now. An action sequence ensues, which moves quickly from on-foot to a car chase; delivery van, complete with collection of bobble-heads, versus Jolie’s sexy red car. After endangering the lives of about 240 civilians, Fox and Wesley escape. She introduces him to the Fraternity, a secret society of assassins that has existed for the past one thousand years, killing people randomly based on information received from the Loom of Doom—sorry, I mean the Loom of Fate.
More about the loom later.
Wesley runs home, but later has a great blow-up scene at work (we cheered) and walks out. Very Fight Club. He goes back to the Fraternity and begins to train as an assassin. This mostly consists of getting beaten up by various people. It’s kind of like bad group therapy from the 1970’s with a dash of Richard Gere blubbering “I’ve got no place else to go!” thrown in. It really shouldn’t work, but McAvoy is convincing. Fox makes Welsey run along the top of the El Train, a really fun scene. We see this two more times. One of them is a game of Capture the Flag and Wesley’s joyous confidence in this scene is a delight.
There’s also this repeated theme about getting the trajectory of a bullet to curve. I don’t know why this is a big deal. In the second scene of the movie we see a bullet that loses and gains altitude as needed, and goes around corners. We’re also seen the racy red car levitate straight up, do a barrel roll (side-over-side 360-degree flip) and land with zero suspension damage. Makes shooting in a curve seem pretty ho-hum.
In addition to Fight Club, the movie borrows heavily from Batman Begins, The Matrix and in some ways Nightwatch itself, where a gifted boy comes to know himself and makes a choice between good and evil. The movie doesn’t look like any of them, although a little bit like each of them. The loom, while making no logical sense, is pretty, and the textile mill that is the headquarters of the Fraternity looks like a castle.
The loom sends back the names of targets via binary code (zeroes and ones) transmitted by checks in the material it is weaving. The loom weaves itself. Sounds kind of Zen; The Loom that Weaves Itself. Oh,wait, that’s a book on Chinese medicine and it’s The Web That Has No Weaver. Anyway, one thousand years ago, the loom developed a binary code to transmit the names of targets to the weavers. Isn’t it interesting that they had binary code in 1008? (I know you’re going to say, “But Marion, I read some where that weaving technology is one point in a line that leads directly to binary code!” And I’m going to say, “Yes, that’s true; it was a different kind of weaving, and it employed punch cards.”) Doesn’t matter; the loom is still cooler than cool. Morgan Freeman, the current leader of the Fraternity, is the only person who is allowed to decipher the loom’s messages.
Of course the plot follows a “rogue” assassin named Cross who has left the Fraternity and is allegedly taking out the remaining killers. Freeman expands on the tale that Cross killed Wesley’s father. At this point the Sig-O leaned over to me and murmured, “I am your father, Luke.”
Wesley gets the name of his first target, but backs out of the killing. How can he know if the mark is truly evil? Fox tells him a heart-tugging story that is the equivalent of “There was this guy who wore his seat belt and his car caught on fire and he couldn’t get out, so seat belts are bad and I shouldn’t have to wear one.” His moral qualms suitably soothed, Wesley takes the shot, then goes after Cross.
This takes place in Morovia; but before we get there we get a montage of action scenes, including that great barrel-roll again, this time in a gold vintage Mustang. Much later I remembered the witch’s magical red car in Daywatch. I imagine Bekmambetov once again coming to grips with the American budget: “I want to barrel-roll another car,” he says, wiping his sweaty palms on his pant-legs. “Sure, Timur, whatever you want.” “Really? Okay, I. . .in the final sequence I want. . .five hundred rounds of ammo—no, no a thousand rounds! No, four thousand, wait, forty thousand, I want forty thousand rounds! And exploding rats!”
It is absurd to argue with the morality of a story about assassins, and difficult to quibble with the logic of a movie that is, after all, based on a comic book. That said, I had some trouble with the Morovia section. Some of it just went by too quickly for me. Did the guy in the Morovia monastery have another loom? Mainly, though, it’s the train sequence. Wesley chases Cross onto a train, while Fox follows in a stolen Audi or Citroen or something. We see an arial view as she parallels the train through lush, flat farmlands. Seconds later, we’re in the mountains, high in the mountains. Mayhem happens, and then the train starts across a trestle that spans a really, really really deep gorge. . . a gorge so deep that I was actually jerked out of the movie thinking, “If that existed, wouldn’t it have been in every nature photography calendar and screensaver program for the past ten years? How did they get from the flats to the stratosphere so quickly? Where is this gorge? Where did all the innocent passengers go?” By this time, Fox has crashed her little commuter car through the window of the train and is on board, and the games begin. Wesley shortly discovers that Things Are Not What They Seem. The scene looks really cool, and that deep, deep gorge is not wasted.
Sometime after this comes the ultimate battle (exploding rats!) and it is awesome. It’s the kind of scene I hate intellectually and I didn’t care, I still liked it.
Then we get to the end of the movie and you’re thinking, “Well, what now?” McAvoy tells you. He looks straight at the camera, peering around the barrel of his father’s long-distance super-gun, and says something like, “I discovered my destiny, I left behind my boring little job, and I killed a whole bunch of people. What the f*** did you do today?”
Can you imagine that at your next staff meeting? Wesley comes and tells the story of his life; office drone to hired killer. Wouldn’t that just totally inspire you to go to Peru and help build a school, or at least take that on-line Excell class you keep putting off? I know it would me.
But it works. It works in part because the arc of the story is not evil versus good, but ignorance versus self-knowledge, engagement versus apathy, strength versus self-abnegation.
It works for another reason; it’s funny. The sticky-note gags are funny. One of the funnier things is the deceitful, cuckolding best friend, played with perfect pitch by Chris Pratt. This actor wrings more readings out of the line “You’re the man,” than anybody.