scott howard graphic design writing and editing photography video about contact

August 2008

Dead or Alive

Wanted hits the big screen with style to spare

Though Hollywood is gobbling up comic book properties left and right, Mark Millar’s Wanted doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a summer blockbuster. It’s too dark, too complicated. People like their comic book movies with heroes, and Wanted doesn’t have any. Literally. Dubbed “the Watchmen for super-villains” by The Sunday Times, it’s set in a world where the bad guys defeated the good guys long ago. Supervillains run everything through a secret cabal called the Fraternity and the rest of society lead monotonous lives as dreary cube-dwellers. The 2004 six-issue series followed the sullen Wesley Gibson, whose banal existence is forever changed when a foxy lady named The Fox informs him that his master hitman father (called The Killer, gotta love the names here) is dead and young Wes is expected to take up his mantle. He does so, not out of a desire to save the world, but out of selfishness and greed. Obviously, we’re a long way from Spider-Man territory.

Then again, the “white collar bore thrust into a violent counterculture” plot worked wonders for Fight Club and The Matrix, so maybe it’s not that far off. Universal certainly thinks they’ve got something special on their hands, giving it a huge vote of confidence by moving the release date from a low profile spring slot to smack dab in the middle of summer. After a few revisions in the interest of making the material more palatable to mainstream audiences—“supervillains” are now “assassins” who act in a hazy realpolitik-esque interest of the greater good instead of an evil quest for power—Wanted has all the makings of a dark horse summer hit.

Director Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakhstani mastermind behind the extraordinary Night Watch trilogy (he’s currently gearing up for the final installment, Twilight Watch), has been involved with the project from its infancy, insuring that his unique stamp would be on every frame. And boy, is it unique. “It is like 100 ideas are going on inside my brain, all fighting to come out,” he explains. “What happens is this makes a new style, maybe something that no one has seen before. I want to put the audience in the action—in the middle—so that they go on a journey with the character, not just sit and watch.” The execs were hardly the soulless penny-pinchers you’d expect from the moneybags behind a highly-acclaimed European auteur’s first English-language project. Producer Jim Lemley says they brought Bekmambetov on board precisely for his singular vision. “We spent two years getting from the first draft of the script to the shoot. It was important for us to push through a comfort level of what had been seen on film before and come up with ideas—no matter how outlandish they seemed on paper—that could visually blow the audience away.”

Bekmambetov gladly complied, dreaming up loads of elaborate setpieces that are sure to astonish moviegoers. Chief among these is the Loom of Fate, a literal representation of the balance the Fraternity seeks to preserve. The Loom weaves fabric that holds a complex code; flaws in its work are indicative of a flaw in the universe, which is spelled out through a binary pattern deciphered from reading the fabric’s weft and warp. Then a member of the Fraternity dispatches that flaw with acrobatic feats of assassinry, including bullets that travel for miles and can change direction in mid-air (it’s a movie, people, don’t get all logical on me). A little far-fetched, sure, but not really that far off from other religious traditions and notions of fate, according to producer Mark Platt. “In the Old Testament, there is a whole system of numerology where words are prescribed numbers and those numbers represent a code. In many ways, the mythology created for this film is no different.”

The director’s visceral approach goes to new heights in Wanted’s astounding sequence on top of Chicago’s ‘L’ trains, an idea that grew from Bekmambetov’s dissatisfaction with the film’s centerpiece parkour scene when the French martial arts/gymnastics hybrid suddenly became an obligatory addition to every action movie (including the latest James Bond and Die Hard films). But putting the actors on top of the trains would likely meet with some pesky decapitations, and the trains themselves were far too unwieldy to work with. The bridges the trains travel under, on the other hand, were much more manageable. So as Bekmambetov puts it, “The train was too big to move, so we moved the bridge instead!” Several trains were placed in front of green screens and a reconstructed bridge flew above them to create the illusion of movement. Similar train-bending antics were put in play for another high-speed chase that ends with a cataclysmic derailment, facilitating the construction of a train set that could rotate and tilt at extreme speeds in a matter of seconds. The end result makes for great film if not necessarily great filming, says special effects team supervisor Dominic Tuohy. “We actually saw all of the stunt crew inside, rolling around inside this train, as well as our actors, who did every scene themselves. It was rough for the actors and crew, but it makes the scene far more interesting when you actually have real people trapped behind chairs or getting flung around. Our actors said they felt like they were in a tumble dryer, poor guys.”

And what a group of tumble-dried actors Wanted has assembled! Millar’s original series had a foot firmly planted in the entertainment world—The Fox is based on Halle Berry and Wes is modeled after Oscar-winning rapper/thespian Eminem–so casting was key. Bekmambetov decided to go a nontraditional route with Wesley by picking Scottish heartthrob James McAvoy, who is best known for critically acclaimed Oscar bait like Atonement and The Last King of Scotland. “I knew James was a different kind of actor for Wesley, but I wanted a real actor,” the director explains. “We needed someone people will identify with, somebody who kind of looks like everybody. Wes changes a lot, on the inside, on the outside. And James can do that—we believe his changes.” McAvoy savored the chance to break out of period piece mode with a big budget action movie and lay waste to genre stereotypes. “I’m not used to seeing someone like myself in these roles. As a movie lover, I do complain frequently that I’m fed up with seeing 6’5” alpha males in these roles. I’m glad they cast someone like me, not in terms of what I can bring to the role as an actor, but more because I’m not an obvious choice.” And the chance to work with Bekmambetov certainly didn’t hurt. "He really does think differently than most directors. I think he’s a mad, evil genius and his work is incredibly cool and strange. Even on big, emotional, sincere things, he undercuts it with a very strange angle…which I respond to very well.”

Morgan Freeman, who plays the Fraternity’s leader Sloan, also jumped at the chance to work with Bekmambetov. “He just has such a creative mind,” he says. “I’ve been in many, many films, and so I’m always looking to find something different to try. As an actor, you don’t want to do the same thing ad nauseam. When I read Wanted, I thought the concept was compelling, and Timur’s a very interesting filmmaker. Combine that with the rest of the cast—and the fact that I haven’t done too many action movies—and I was eager to participate.” And for The Fox, the filmmakers landed Angelina Jolie in her first action role since 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Bekmambetov has nothing but kind words for her: “We were very lucky—and very happy—to get Angelina. She is just so solid, and such a nonconformist. She’s also a perfectionist, so in everything she does she wants to be the best. She is deep and talented, grounded and specific. She knows, every second, what she wants to do in the scene. Her viewpoint is very strong, and so you have to understand it. We worked with her on her dialogue, and she really helped to make it stronger.”

It all adds up to a compelling project that may well dominate the box office this summer. But Bekmambetov is quick to point out that at its expensive, explosive core is a message that anybody can relate to. “Wesley is trying to escape from a world where people lie and find people who tell the truth. Along the way, he finds you can’t do anything about fate, but you can destiny. You choose and you steer your destiny.”


  © copyright scott howard