Wednesday, July 2, 2008

WANTED and HANCOCK

Combo Review: Wanted and Hancock
"Action Double Feature"
by R. Kurt Osenlund

For action lovers, there's a double dose of fireworks currently blasting through theaters, in the form of one reluctant superhero and a whole league of bullet-bending assassins. Both Columbia Pictures' “Hancock” and Universal's “Wanted” feature enough stunts to satisfy even the hungriest adrenaline junkie, with the latter offering up some of the cinema's niftiest visual effects to date. At the movies at least, there'll still be plenty to “ooh” and “ahh” about even after the 4th of July has passed.


While it surely won't be the smartest, unless Hollywood unveils some explosive secret weapon between now and December, “Wanted” will take its rightful place as the coolest film of the year. It's the latest in a growing line of post-”Matrix” actioners that seek to stretch the limits of computer enhanced thrills (see also: “300,” the underrated “Equilibrium,” and countless others), and it stretches them until they snap like broken bones. A well-oiled machine of awesome gunfights and even more awesome car chases, the stylish comic book fantasy is 104 minutes of trigger-happy hysteria.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the lukewarm reception of his “Night Watch” films (2004 – 06) as a springboard from which to launch his high-octane talents to new heights. He translates Mark Millar and J.G. Jones' “Wanted” graphic novel – about a dissatisfied, anxiety-stricken accounts manager named Wesley who's destined to join a thousand-year-old fraternity of hitmen - to celluloid with the zeal of a popcorn filmmaker in his prime. An inner-city pursuit involving a Dodge Viper sends you weaving around medians, soaring above police barricades and flying through buses at breakneck speeds. Rippling, dizzying camera tricks illustrate moments of distress and built-up suspense with equal intensity. And a climactic assault is staged like an engrossing video game, brought to life for a few fleeting moments. Bekmambetov keeps the tone of his movie young, hip, funny and rude enough to still draw in wisecracking fanboys, but make no mistake: this is about as slick as modern action movies get.


James McAvoy (ditching the Brit accent) dutifully tackles the film's heroism and comic relief as Wesley, who's hilariously na├»ve before he transforms, via some obligatory time-lapsed training sequences, into a one-man army. Still, his spotlight doesn't stand a chance against the burning glow of Angelina Jolie, who it's now safe to conclude has the most seductive, bewitching face of any living actress. As Fox, the seasoned hitwoman sent to rescue Wesley from his cubicle hell, she gives “Wanted” an additional boost of energy that doesn't let up from the moment her character makes her first abrupt appearance. Although Fox is a supporting role, Jolie's star power is what the film's producers are using to promote it - and it's worth every penny. The magnetism of this woman's screen presence is priceless, to the point that a scene that's meant to focus on a bullet curving past her perfectly formed head may as well have included no bullet at all. She's pure dynamite, and she's the nearly flawless “Wanted”'s main event.

“Hancock,” Will Smith's latest star vehicle, casts the two-time Oscar nominee and top earner as a Los Angeles superhero for whom truth, justice and the American way are anything but top priorities. Lazy, dirty and depressed, Smith's titular character is introduced passed out on a bus stop bench surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. When he does engage in the occasional fight against crime, Hancock – the name comes from a cute origin story in which amnesia caused him to take a hospital's playful signature request quite literally – causes more harm than good, leaving millions of dollars of damage and hordes of disgruntled citizens in his haphazard wake. When he meets struggling PR consultant Ray (Jason Bateman), the two form an unlikely partnership that might just revive Ray's career and turn Hancock into a superhero for the makeover age.


“Hancock” sports a fun and clever script, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. At a time when Marvel is known more as a movie studio than as a comic book publisher, films of this genre are popping up everywhere and quality is in short supply. Here is an offbeat twist on the formula, that puts its heart in the right place without losing its punch. Hancock is not all-powerful and one-dimensional, but flawed, fragile and layered. Smith, the fine actor that he is, breathes believable life into him, even if it does feel like he's trying to fill his summer blockbuster quota. It's a kick to see the oft-dashing leading man take on a change-of-pace role, and as Ray's disapproving wife, fellow super-performer Charlize Theron matches Smith scene for scene.

The punch, in fact, is something of which “Hancock” could use a little less, as big budget and glossy as its effects may be. To viewers' delight, Smith derails freight trains, whizzes by 747's and tears up superhighways, all to the tune of a fortune in production costs. But the story and the actors are good enough that director Peter Berg needn't bombard those same viewers with scenes like a seemingly endless battle in which lightning, hail and even tornadoes demolish LA buildings. “Hancock” comes so close to being that rare superhero movie that practices restraint. If only it knew its own strength.

Wanted: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Hancock: 3 stars (out of 5)

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