Monday, June 30, 2008

WANTED...a plot that makes sense

I don't really review movies here at False Prophecy, but I saw one this weekend that compels me to discuss it. Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman, opened this Friday. And let me get it out of the way now: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!

Wanted is based on the comic series by noted British comics scribe, Mark Millar. Like much of his work, it tends to be brutal, cynical and nihilistic (even though he's one of the only noteworthy Brits who still writes superheroes). However, this style is perfectly suited for Wanted, Millar's tale of a socety of supervillains who banded together in 1986 to take over the world, eliminate all the superheroes, and then convince the world that neither they nor the heroes ever existed (except in comic books), while secretly running things from behind the scenes. This Fraternity faces its first major upheaval when one of their luminaries, the assassin known as The Killer (who never misses his target) is himself slain. At this point, his estranged and ignorant son Wesley, an unassuming cubicle jockey, is made aware of his father's identity, the existence of the Fraternity, and his inheritance of his father's abilities.

Millar intentionally structures this plot as the "anti-Spiderman": in both stories, a geeky nebbish finds out he has incredible powers. Peter Parker initially tries to profit from his powers only to have his beloved uncle die as a result of his inaction, whereupon he swears to use his spider powers to help people and fight for justice. Whereas Wesley Gibson uses his newfound talent at killing to turn his worthless life around: among other things, he kills his best friend for sleeping with his girlfriend. Basically, for the first part Wesley revels in the evil he can get away with as a result of his powers and position, and then has to deal with the supervillains who probably killed his father and are now gunning for him. As nihilistic, amoral adolescent power fantasies go, it's entertaining.

The film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Russian director of Night Watch fame), takes a lot of liberties with the comic. First thing thrown out the window: the Fraternity aren't supervillains, but a thousand-year-old secret society of assassins. They are trained in tricks like curving bullets around obstacles and knocking bullets out of the air with knives, and seeing the world in Matrix-style bullet-time.

The Fraternity obstensibly assassinates individuals to shape the course of history towards a better path: "Kill one; save a thousand". The targets the Fraternity knocks off are evidently bad people who will perpetuate great evil deeds later on.

This supposedly makes the actions of the protagonists more noble, a grand departure from the comic (although it brings up the same moral dilemmas that "pre-crime" did in The Minority Report). Apparently, the filmmakers told Millar (who otherwise is very supportive of the film--must be getting a percentage) it would be difficult for the audience to root for the protagonists if all the major characters were out-and-out villains. In an interview, Millar notes that The Godfather is such a film, and it's considered one of the greatest films of all time.

There's a lot of flashy action sequences that are well-executed, for the most part, although one wonders how this "secret society" stayed secret for a millennia when they're so recklessly destructive. The main plot is similar to the comic, wherein Wesley has to kill the man who killed his father or suffer his father's fate. There's a blatant "Luke I Am Your Father" moment. But little things like this I can forgive if the film otherwise entertains me. However, one glaring plothole just kept bugging me for the whole picture, and would not let go, and it deals with the method of how the Fraternity gets the names of its targets.

See, the Fraternity was born from a guild of weavers (ie, cloth weavers) a thousand years ago, who started seeing a binary code in their woven cloth. The present-day Fraternity still gets their marching orders from a giant loom, that renders names in a binary code that Sloan, head of the order, translates into the names of targets. And these hardened killers take it on faith (or rather Fate) that offing these people has to be done. Pro bono, since the Fraternity doesn't do paid hits, all kills are to advance the "mission"--ie, what the loom tells them. The Fraternity still participates in the always-reliable textile industry to pay for its exotic cars and unique weaponry. Alas, despite all the high-tech gadgetry, their archives are still a room full of leather and wood bound parchment texts.

I'm still trying to understand how you motivate a society of ruthless, can't-fail assassins based on a legend like this:

[SCENE: Somewhere in Europe, 1000 years ago]

WEAVER 1: Hey look, there's something weird in the cloth.
WEAVER 2: Let me see...(looks)...looks like the shuttle missed a few passes.
WEAVER 1: I think it's a code.
WEAVER 2: Get out!
WEAVER 1: No, really, it's a code in binary which we won't really develop for cryptographical purposes for another six centuries!
WEAVER 2: OK, assuming it is a code and not the more likely explanation that the shuttle occasionally misses given that we're using 11th century technology here...what's the code say?
WEAVER 1: Gimme a sec...(decrypts message)...look, it spells out names!
WEAVER 2: [Skeptically] Uh-huh. So what do we, humble weavers of cloth, do with these names?
WEAVER 1: Clearly Fate is telling us these people need to die!
WEAVER 2: Right. And by sheer coincidence the first name on the list is the guy who stiffed you over all that Persian silk last week?


Hasan-i Sabbah knew how to motivate a secret society of assassins: drug them up with hallucinogens, offer them willing and attractive sexual partners, then take it all away. Then, send them to kill your enemies promising them they will return to paradise if they die after completing their missions. Why mess with a proven formula?