Along with every other hyperbolic critical adjective, “state-of-the-art” has been devalued by overuse, so let’s move the boundary posts and proclaim Wanted “state-of-the-art state-of-the-art.” Assassins propel themselves through space, distend time, bend bullets like Beckham, and live both dangerously and parabolically: Yoweeee! What a ride on the cyber-whoosh rapids! It takes about an hour after it’s over for the heart to slow, the brain to recalibrate, and the nonsensicalness of the thing to sink in: I fell for that??? By then, you’ll have already babbled to a few dozen friends and strangers, “You gotta see this movie!!!” It’s like the bighearted urge to share your Ecstasy at a party.
The premise itself isn’t world-shattering: Wanted is the standard summer-thriller mishmash of blockbusters past, from The Matrix (obviously) to The Terminator to Star Wars to Harry Potter, with a bit of Bourne for ballast. All feature protagonists who suddenly discover their specialness (“Your long-awaited destiny…,” etc.) along with latent powers they must learn to control (“Let your instincts guide you …,” etc.), a journey that becomes a metaphor for growing up, achieving autonomy, etc. Skinny Scottish darling James McAvoy puts on an American accent for his first Hollywood FX blockbuster as Wesley Gibson, a timid accountant (“I’m an accountant!”) who gobbles fistfuls of anti-anxiety pills to counter palpitations (flub-dub, flub-dub) and peculiar wobbles in the space-time continuum. Refilling a prescription, he finds his jitters are about to increase exponentially: There beside him stands Angelina Jolie, who utters the picture’s equivalent of “Come with me if you want to live”—only with a twinkle of amusement, as if the whole gazillion-dollar movie were her little toy.
The first act of Wanted might be subtitled “Waiting for Angelina.” She’s neither the hero nor the villain (it’s a supporting role), but her aura is essential: Amid all the artificiality, she’s a natural wonder, with novel permutations of nature-nurture nuttiness. Offscreen, we know her as both an occasional home-wrecker and a fervently articulate do-gooder—a tantalizing mix. Onscreen, her aura reshapes every scene. Laugh all you like, but she’d be a great Hedda Gabler. Can she project vulnerability? Yes—she had a moment, believe it or not, in the Lara Croft sequel before blowing away her true love. But she’ll never be a crying-on-the-inside kind of gal. She’s too well defended.
In Wanted, she plays Fox (just Fox), the distaff member of an ancient fraternity of assassins presided over by Morgan Freeman. She whisks Wesley out of apparent harm’s way by firing bullets that seem like extensions of her will, then steers a car with her long legs while directing a fusillade at the terminator on their tail—a rogue assassin (Thomas Kretschmann) now picking off old colleagues. When fraternity members train Wesley, rather brutally, in the art of harnessing his powers, Jolie sits back, has a little snack, and meets the pummeled accountant’s eyes when the mood strikes her. Could any other actress convey so much while emoting so little?
Jolie is a happy distraction from a lot of twaddle (the movie is based on a comic-book series) about mystical coded messages that show up in a giant loom and appear to be hits ordered by God—who you’d think could take out people on His own with the occasional bolt of lightning. But the deft script (by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan) ends up inverting many of the Matrix tropes it appropriates. (The denouement is a triumph of rug pulling.) And Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakhstan-born director who made the head-trippy vampire opus Night Watch, is a killer when it comes to mixing fast and slow motion in ways that screw up your biorhythms: You feel as if you’re riding on the back of those curving bullets as they hit their targets with a satisfying splat. Wanted has the kind of irresistible summer-movie allure that makes studio executives drool in anticipation. Even its title must swim before their eyes and transform into “Want-to-See.”
Get Smart is likable and very funny—at least a two-to-one ratio of excellent gags to clunkers—but it’s not, for better or worse, Get Smart. In spite of the ridiculous malfunctioning secret-agent gadgets, the sixties Mel Brooks–Buck Henry sitcom wasn’t so much a James Bond parody as an American espionage reworking of Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. Agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) might have fancied himself 007, but he was a preening boob without a trace of self-awareness—which ironically ensured his triumph over his rational (and therefore easily flummoxed) foes. Peter Segal’s star-packed update is bursting with uproarious gadget shtick, but Steve Carell’s Max simply isn’t the idiot we knew and loved.
On his own terms, Carell is delightful. But he’s delightful as a mild-mannered know-it-all whose occasional flights of grandiosity can’t keep him from plummeting to Earth. He’s plucky but not impervious. He’s the hero of the deskbound techie nerds at headquarters, the geek who gets to move from his analyst job into the field and prove he has the wherewithal to think on his feet. (There’s a genius bit at a urinal.) It’s a valid question whether we’d want another obtuse, Don Adams–like Agent 86. Get Smart the sitcom was a one-joke affair and got tedious fast, whereas Carell’s starry-eyed dweeb has room for nuance, for growth, for inspiration. A case can be made for both Maxes. Me, I miss the thickie.
This Agent 99 is a more shrewdly updated model. She’s not the super-competent Barbara Feldon straight woman whose mushy subtext was to preserve Smart’s delusions of potency. Here, she’s a bratty show-off—a perfectly cast Anne Hathaway dressed to the 99s in Chanel. Like most young actresses, Hathaway has dropped too many pounds—in a couple of shots her cheeks have sunken so deep that they can barely hold her giant teeth. But the sleekness, the hard lines, the blacks and bright greens against that ivory skin—yowza. I also like the scene where she wears a tousled jacket and loosened tie: It says, “Okay, boys. Deal me in.” After this and The Devil Wears Prada, Hathaway must have designers camping out in front of her co-op.
As the Chief, the straight man, Alan Arkin gets to show off some of the best timing in movies. Watch how he expels a wordy one-liner involving a giant swordfish in one perfectly calibrated breath: A good bit becomes a haymaker. Too bad about Terence Stamp as the kaos kingpin Siegfried: The character is no longer an ethnic joke, but now he’s not much of anything. There’s a lot in the mix: Dwayne Johnson and his muscles as the agency stud; a giant killer (wrestler Dalip Singh) modeled on Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me; mild barbs at Bush and Cheney balanced by a yellowcake-uranium threat that turns out to be real (makes a change); and star cameos. To keep the groundlings happy, there are more spectacular chases and shoot-outs than in many genuine action movies.
The best scene, though, makes the case for elegance, even in broad comedy. It’s a bit at a hoity-toity Russian black-tie affair where 99—looking like the Mata Hari of our dreams in a jaw-dropping green gown slit in all the right places—waltzes off with the suave-baddie host, and jealous Max hits the floor with an obese young woman (Lindsay Hollister). It turns out that Hollister is enchantingly light on her feet, and Carell—this is his gift—makes his fatuousness seem like a state of grace.
Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a tender, even-tempered elegy to a writer who at his peak could ingest staggering (literally) amounts of drugs and alcohol and transform, like Popeye after a can of spinach, into a superhuman version of himself—more trenchant, more cutting, more hilarious than any political journalist before or since. Writers of my generation rocked out to his prose. We dreamed of living that large. We drank whiskey from the bottle, gobbled down speed, and threw ourselves onto our manual typewriters. The upshot was posturing horseshit and trips to the emergency room. No one but Thompson succeeded in being at once so addled and so lucid—and after a while, tragically, neither did Thompson.
Gibney, who took home an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, his clear-eyed look at U.S.-sanctioned torture, sees Thompson as the kind of writer who, in a just universe, could have roused the populace to beat back the devil-bats Cheney and Bush. It’s good to recall how inspiring Thompson’s voice was in its prime. Although the readings by onetime Thompson impersonator Johnny Depp are a tad orotund, just hearing the words ibogaine and Muskie in the same sentence was enough to trigger my sense memories of laughing so hard at Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail I nearly swallowed my tongue. Footage of Thompson in his Hell’s Angels phase reminds you how many personae he straddled—the effete cigarette-holder freak and the hard-drinking motorcycle gunslinger. He was the most stirring advocate imaginable for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, good men and true (both interviewed here), yet compared to Thompson rather limp fish.
Douglas Brinkley (biographer) and Timothy Crouse (Boswell on the campaign trail) do a neat job of putting the work in historical context, while his first wife, Sandy, evokes a life in the Colorado compound that was more guns than roses. I missed two things in Gonzo. There’s no mention of Thompson’s account of the ’72 Democratic convention machinations that won McGovern the nomination—a dispatch that proves how far a gonzo reporter can go when all the circuits are firing. The second is footage of Thompson in his last decades, when he was so arrogantly incoherent that even his most adoring fans were disgusted. Gibney probably thought such footage would be exploitive, but it’s part of Thompson’s legacy, too. And watching him try—and fail—to recover the glorious voice of gonzo can only deepen our awe at how high he flew for a time.
In Wanted, Angelina Jolie’s dexterous assassin—a member of a brother- (and sister-) hood of killers—is tattooed from neck to ankle. Jolie’s body art is well documented, but it’s not easy to tell which belong to her and which to her character. “We added a bunch,” she admitted to MTV. “But based on mine. On the idea that fraternity is based on a sense of justice.” As you may know, Jolie’s baby daddy Brad Pitt also got a new, much-remarked-upon tat, based on a doodle by Angelina. Sweet.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Directed by Peter Segal.
Warner Bros. PG-13.
Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney.
Magnolia Pictures. R.