The English-language debut of Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, whose Night Watch and Day Watch were likewise ricocheting and relentless, Wanted is an assaultive roller coaster of a movie that would be more fun if the violence weren't so nasty, and if the script made any sense.
Adapted from Mark Millar and J.G. Jones' comic book series, Wanted offers the classic fantasy of a loser dude - crummy job, cheating gal, low self-esteem - reborn as an action hero, guns a-blazin' and getting to lip-lock with the luscious-lipped Jolie.
She's Fox, a vixen with "Tears" and "Toil" etched on her alarmingly thin biceps, and she's part of a fraternity of assassins that have been killing people for 1,000 years. Fox and her cohorts - headed by a nattily attired, cliche-spouting Morgan Freeman - are descendants of a "clan of weavers," and while murder is their morally dubious pursuit, they've rationalized it. Their motto: Kill one, save a thousand. They're particular about whom they off, and see themselves as active participants in the "Loom of Fate."
McAvoy's Wesley Gibson gets pulled into this high-class assassination biz because, it turns out, his father was a member of the Order, and Wes has inherited his dad's supersensory skills. Wes thought he was suffering from panic attacks, but actually, when his pulse starts pounding at 400 beats per minute, he can do things, and see things, with astounding precision, clarity and power. So, Wes tells his boss to go stuff her face with doughnuts, kisses Fox in front of his cheating girlfriend, and goes off to avenge his father's death and kill a bunch of folks.
Bekmambetov shoots the shootouts like gun porn - gleaming, long-barreled weaponry, shiny slo-mo projectiles etched with personalized messages for the victims. The film's fetishization of firearms should win it the NRA's seal of approval. Maybe if the murder rate in Philadelphia wasn't so sickeningly high, Wanted's senseless adoration of assault weapons wouldn't be so off-putting.
McAvoy, the game Scotsman of Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, steps up for the ride - and for a couple of high velocity car chases - losing his Celtic burr and throwing his earnest all into the proceedings. He makes the movie almost likable. Jolie grins seductive grins, strikes cool poses, and parses her dopey dialogue with a devilish turn, but Fox is no Lara Croft - Jolie these days is less sexy than she is scary on screen.
Wanted is head-spinning stuff, and it's easy to get caught up in its masterfully manipulated mayhem. Visually, and viscerally, it's pretty awesome. But when your head stops spinning and you start to think about it - well, you realize that it's not really worth thinking about much at all.
Wanted **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. With James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, gore, profanity, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.