Cyber war has raged about the possible message of Wanted. But who's right? And what's the real motivation for the film-maker - and his critics?
Summertime popcorn actioners don't normally prompt intellectual outrage. Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted has managed to. In various journalistic, audiovisual and blogospheric quarters, it's been trashed as misogynist, fascistic and an insult to its audience's intelligence.
Nonetheless, the complaint that a comic-book-based fantasy should have a fantastic plot itself seems a challenge to credulity. So, our accountant hero is inducted into a thousand-year-old assassination cult by Angelina Jolie down at the supermart. Doesn't happen every day, but how often do gauche newspapermen transform themselves into supermen in telephone boxes? The effrontery with which Bekmambetov flaunts the conventions of the genre is one of his film's many strengths. Any disbelief suspension deficiency is the filmgoer's problem, not his.
Oddly, critics have had particular difficulty with the idea that it's a self-styled "ordinary and pathetic" character who metamorphoses into the superhero. Since its earliest days, Hollywood has liked to indulge the little guy's dream that he might break free from his workaday bonds and, as this film puts it, "release the caged lion" inside him.
Bekmambetov took the trouble to check that this dream actually exists. He told LA Weekly's Ella Taylor that he'd talked to a lot of young Americans, and found their imaginations "very bloody, very violent". Whatever. It's the little guy who pays for the movie ticket. He knows that all he's buying is six dollars' worth of escapism. This film's overt reminder that this is so is one of its cheeky charms, not some kind of haughty sneer at its audience.
The misogyny charge is puzzling. Sure, a fat workplace bully who happens to be female gets a bullet through her doughnut, a peculiarly benign form of retribution compared to what's visited on the film's other reprobates. However, it's Jolie's character who's the film's martial arts star, its central beacon of virtue and a lofty mentor to James McAvoy's stumbling uncaged lion. When it's time for her to be dispatched, the camera discreetly averts its gaze, denying the audience the glow of sadism engendered by the gory carnage inflicted on the film's male casualties. Are we to view Kill Bill as propaganda for misandry?
A clue as to what's triggered this misplaced repugnance may lie in those cries of "fascism". It's entirely reasonable to wonder about the social impact of the message that ultra-violence should be inflicted on evil-doers, and that it's highly satisfying to do the inflicting. However, this is of course a question posed not just by this film but by a huge chunk of Hollywood's, not to speak of videogaming's, output, and indeed legends that long predate both.
Wanted is not to blame for the Iraq war, even if generic predecessors may have played their part in its genesis. In fact, its central theme is that the motto "Kill one and perhaps save a thousand" corrupts people who adopt it. The fate of those who misdirect slaughter in this fable is one that most of its critics would surely relish seeing Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld endure.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it's the sheer excellence of Wanted that's made it the focus of such egregious opprobrium. Direction, plotting and acting are top-notch. If the film's dialogue is outlandishly leaden, that's surely a dry nod to its comic-book provenance. Perhaps the righteous can stomach primary-colour allegory only so long as it knows its primitive place. If so, that's their loss, not ours. [The Guardian]