Wanted's James McAvoy has problems: He's broke. His girlfriend's cheating on him with his best friend. His boss is a demanding jerk. Oh, and there's a man with a gun following him around who seems to want him dead. Fortunately, he's caught the eye of Angelina Jolie, a highly trained super-assassin known as Fox (for reasons never explained, largely because there's no need). Soon, he's been inducted into a thousand-year-old secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, headed by Morgan Freeman. Under Freeman and Jolie's tutelage—with a little help from characters named The Gunsmith (Common), The Butcher, and The Exterminator—McAvoy learns to tap into hidden talents for mayhem, destruction, and murder.
If anything, this is all more juvenile than it sounds. Loosely adapting a comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted is a queasily unapologetic power fantasy about becoming a better person through violence. As McAvoy learns to hurt, he heals a psyche wounded by the tiny emasculations of the 21st century. There's no humiliation, the film suggests, that can't be corrected with a well-placed bullet. It's a repulsive sentiment, and the revelation that The Fraternity performs its killings as preemptive strikes against predicted future atrocities compounds its queasiness. That logic sits about as well in the context of the movie as it does in foreign-policy discussions.
But—and this is a big "but"—it's also seductively executed on just about every level. Making good use of his Bud Cort-with-sex appeal looks, McAvoy wears an expression of total defeat as the film opens, losing it by degrees as he gets deeper into The Fraternity's world. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov, making his Hollywood debut after the cult favorites Night Watch and Day Watch, generously doles out one sequence set on the fringes of earthly physics after another. He keeps the action frenetic but coherent, his choppy editing and shameless camera tricks finding a sweet spot just beneath the sensory overload of a Michael Bay movie. Bekmambetov shoulders most of the work here, making a movie that, for all its feints at black humor and consumer culture satire, fails or succeeds based on the skill with which he portrays one car somersaulting over another. It carries a bitter aftertaste, but by those low standards, it's a considerable success.