'Wanted': Bullet Time, By Kurt Loder

The return of Angelina Jolie, butt-kicker.

Here we have a movie that is not a remake. Remember those? And while "Wanted" is a comic book movie, the director, Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, has wisely dumped a lot of the schoolboy nihilism that made Mark Millar's six-issue miniseries a sometimes disagreeable read. The picture has other problems, but at least they're fairly original ones.

The plot: James McAvoy plays Wes, a Chicago office drone who hates his loser life: the dead-end job, the hump-busting boss, the whiny girlfriend who's boffing his best bud. Dropping by a drugstore one night, Wes is suddenly accosted by an exotic stranger called Fox (Angelina Jolie), who informs him that his father, whom he'd thought long-dead, was in fact alive until yesterday. "The man who killed him is behind you," she says, eyeballing a sinister figure back among the shampoos and ointments.

There follows a wild shootout-and-car-chase sequence featuring some of the most enormous guns in the history of big-screen pandemonium. The killer, a guy named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), escapes, and eventually Fox hauls the battered Wes off to a dilapidated textile mill, which turns out to be the headquarters of an ancient fraternity of assassins. These hit folk — bear with me here — trace their origin back a thousand years to a group of medieval weavers, who discovered within the warp and weft of the cloth produced by their magical loom a binomial code revealing the names of dangerous people who needed to be preemptively rubbed out before they could fulfill their evil destiny. Transported to Chicago, the loom is still weaving today, and the rub-outs continue. Okay. Now, Wes' late dad was a member of this homicidal elite — in fact, he was the best of them — and the time has come for Wes to embrace his lethal heritage, join the team, and track down and terminate the elusive Cross. All of this in the service of maintaining a "balance of justice" in the world. Something like that.

Bekmambetov, best known for the Russian neo-vampire movies "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," here helms his first big-budget English-language film. He is a director for whom the term "over-the-top" is a goal, not a putdown. Some of his action effects would surely make a bang-boom specialist like Michael Bay quiver with admiration. I don't think I've seen anything quite like the moment when Angelina Jolie, at the wheel of a hot red kill-mobile, comes screeching sideways toward James McAvoy and scoops him up through the open passenger-side door like a jai alai ball. Or the boldly preposterous sequence in which McAvoy is blocked from blowing away a bad guy by the bulletproof windows of the man's limo, and Jolie, once again at the controls, stomps the gas and rolls their car up and over the limo so that McAvoy can shoot the creep upside-down through an open sunroof.

Great stuff. Too bad the director seems interested in little else beyond virtuoso mayhem — after an hour or so, we start feeling blown away. And I kind of wish Bekmambetov hadn't dropped one of the more enjoyable elements of the comics — in which the assassins are actually a league of supervillains, complete with costumes — and had instead toned down Wes' assassin-training regimen, which entails an endless series of brutal, bloody beatings. Bekmambetov isn't much of a stylist, either. So, while the movie owes a large debt to "The Matrix" (lots of slo-mo "bullet time," among other things), he's unable to approximate that film's sleek visual design. I also found it a little difficult to accept McAvoy as a seething action man (I just can't dispell the memory of his simpering faun in the first "Chronicles of Narnia" movie), and even harder to buy Morgan Freeman, of all people, as the head assassin. And it's not much fun to see the vibrant Angelina Jolie trapped within a character as inexpressive as the stone-faced Fox.

Bekmambetov has a flamboyant talent for this sort of picture, no argument about that; and "Wanted" is certainly more rousing than many another movie unspooling at the omniplex these days. But the film's roiling camerawork and one-note cacophony grow monotonous; and while its conclusion leaves open the possibility of a sequel, I somehow doubt that one will be forthcoming.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "WALL-E" and "My Winnipeg," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Wanted."

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