Nine years ago, in the cinematic annus mirabilis of 1999, two of the movies that did the most to get the hearts and minds of the American male adolescent pumping were Fight Club and The Matrix, the first a fable about the restoration of Western masculinity, the second a thing, with the bullet-time (and there was also Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me but that wasn't mirabilis so much as misirabil). It's taken almost a decade, but the inevitable has finally happened: those two films had a baby, Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of the classically nihilistic comic series Wanted. And quite a wretched hybrid it turns out to be, with all due respect to the mayhem-lovers out there.

In a nutshell, this is what the plot looks like: Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), trapped in a miserable cubicle job in Chicago, hates his job, hates his fat boss, hates that his girlfriend and best friend are fucking, hates that his name has zero results in a Google search, apparently because he has a magic version of Google from 1994 or so where dirt-common names like "Wesley" and "Gibson" have no web presence. In comparison, the name I just made up "Forrest Annabelle Lipschitz" has 250 results, so I think Mr. Bekmambetov's point is made: our hero exists in a transparently fake world.

Where was I...right, so Wesley hates everything about his life, and takes lots of anxiety pills to compensate for it, and it just so happens one day while he's standing in the pharmacy, he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), a superassassin with the Fraternity, an assassin's guild formed 1000 by Moldavian weavers who were able to read the secret code of the Loom of Fate, and it did tell them that certain persons must die to keep the world safe.* Wesley doesn't particularly give a damn about keeping the world safe, he just wants to learn how to make bullets bend around corners so he can kill the ex-Fraternity assassin who killed the father Wesley hadn't seen since he was one week old.

I've been poking at the story ever since I saw the movie, and I haven't been able to come up with any other reading besides "The best way to feel better about wasting your whole life in an office is to learn how to commit poetic acts of extreme violence". It's even worse if we flip it around: "Extreme violence sure does make you feel better about being a loser". I don't like it when movies make me feel like I have to be some kind of joy-eating moralist, but y'know, I've worked in an office in my day, and it's not very much fun at all, but I don't suppose that having a giant gun and the ability to flip cars in midair would be a constructive way of dealing with that frustration. Much like Fight Club without the satire or The Matrix without the revolutionary visuals, Wanted is nothing more than an entry in the modern bastardisation of Horatio Alger: hey lads, your frustration at not being super-duper awesome and important can be cured at any second by a hot chick taking an interest in your life, and discovering your untapped skills at beating the crap out of other guys!

That way leads only to being a tiresome moral scold, so let me move on to the "yes, and such small portions!" half of my complaint. I know a lot of people though Bekmambetov's Matrix-flavored vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch were just the bee's knees. Personally, I found the first to be a schizophrenic, visually noisy affair that was more fatiguing than exciting, and learning that its sequel was a full half-hour longer was such a daunting prospect that I shamefacedly elected to give it a pass. So it was no surprise to me that Wanted would turn out to be a string of hyper-stylised action sequences cut to ribbons so that you could hardly follow what was happening at any particular moment, and plumped-out with show-off CGI effects that serve no purpose other than to be kewl. Which they might have been, in 1998. Now, it just feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, and it all happens to fast as to be annoying. Basically, I'm trying to say that if you're going to senselessly glorify violence as being a joyful emotional release, the least you can do is make the violence look exciting and not confusing.

In the midst of all this chaos and ugliness, it falls upon the film's stars to make it even a tiny bit worthwhile. Unexpectedly, this does not include Morgan Freeman as Sloan, the Fraternity's ruler, or president, or something that requires him to use his beautiful voice to explain the film's goofy plot and read messages from the Loom of Fate. "Morgan and the Loom of Fate", incidentally, would be a good name for a crappy local indie rock band. No, I am referring to Jolie and McAvoy, who are both very pretty and get to make out at one point. McAvoy isn't quite as good in his role, spending an awful lot of time fighting a losing fight against his Scottish accent bleeding into his "Midwestern", but he still manages to bend his unique personal charm to good use in showcasing Wesley's rise from prematurely-aged office monkey to free-spirited murderer. Jolie, though, is absolutely perfect in a role where "perfection" is admittedly a bit debased; she's got that seductive little grin she does that communicates volumes about how much fun it is to have giant Rube Goldberg guns and drive cars in ways they weren't meant to be driven. It's actually very like her performance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, so I suppose the degree to which one found her playful and sexy in that movie predicts how one will think of her here.

The duo makes a good argument for why we need movie stars: if not for them and how hot they are and how appealing their personae, Wanted would be entirely without merit. I regret that this film is so clumsy in execution that it's poisoned me against a comic series that by all accounts is extravagantly nihilistic in a way that I might have otherwise respected; but both morally and aesthetically, there's nothing to respect about this film, which tries to play the old summertime trick of replacing quality with loud noises and beating down the audience to the point where we think that feeling worn out is the same as being entertained. In this, I did not find it successful.