Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann, Common, Marc Warren, Konstantin Khabensky, Dato Bakhtadze, Chris Pratt, Kristen Hager, Lorna Scott
Plot: Wesley (McAvoy) is an office clerk in a dead end job, who discovers that his recently murdered father was a member of an a group of master assassins known as “The Fraternity”. Now he is offered a chance to take his father’s place as they hunt for his father’s killer.
Review: After exploding onto the scene with his genre bending double header of “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” which saw the forces of light and dark battling in modern day Russia, it was only really a matter of time before director Timur Bekmambetov got called up to bring his unique and highly visual style to the Hollywood system, even though he’d technically already made this back in 2001 with the Roger Corman produced remake of “The Arena”.
Based on the cult graphic novel by Mark Miller and J.G Jones of the same name this is one comic book adaptation where its best to have no connection to the source material which was set in a world where the Supervillians had won their secret war with their superhero counterparts leaving them free to run the world free from interference. Sadly this was all scrapped from this film adaption which was crafted instead as a project for Angelina Jolie who was coming to the end of her contract with Paramount with plans for a third “Tomb Raider” movie being stuck in development hell. Miller though was happy with the end result, even remarking that the previsualized footage had raised his expectation for the film adaptation.
When we meet Wesley at the start of the film he is your usual office drone, being constantly beaten down by his overbearing boss popping anti-anxiety meds for his panic attacks, while his girlfriend cheats on him his supposed best friend Barry (Pratt). It’s clear he’s going nowhere fast until his life is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Fox (Jolie) especially as it comes with an accompanying pharmacy shoot out and high speed chase with his father’s killer and fellow assassin Cross (Kretschmann).
While he might be far from the most likely candidate to be an assassin, it seemingly doesn’t matter seeing how his father’s legacy soon has him being recruited to take his place in “The Fraternity” lead by Sloan (Freeman) and did I mention that they get their targets from the mythical “Loom of Fate” which like the COG’s in “Minority Report” identify targets before they have the chance to cause create “Evil and Chaos”. An addition in this reworking that makes me wonder how exactly anyone thought it was a logical idea but its the one we are going with here, which is made only the more comical by how seriously everyone seems to be playing things.
It’s this crash course in assassin skills which makes up much of the first half of the film and also where the film is the strongest as Wesley learns marksmanship, hand to hand fighting and knife skills most of which involves him having the living hell beaten out of him by his fellow assassins. At the same time he also learns to tap into his adrenaline to give him superhero levels of strength, perception and speed. These later skills adding a surreal edge to the action as Bekmambetov seemingly takes this as a cue to craft any kind of bonkers and over the top action sequence he can think of. However once we get into the pursuit of Cross the film kind of loses its way and becomes a more traditional action thriller, if a totally over the top one with a train based chase sequence and exploding rat based finale ensuring that its still memorable even if the pacing isn’t as tight as the first half.
McAvoy is completely believable as both Wesley the office drone and the bad ass assassin despite initially being turned down for the role due to not having the traditional leading man look or build and while Ryan Phillippe was considered for the role and no doubt would have been equally interesting to see in the role, there is something so likeably about McAvoy that you can’t help but cheer him on as he finally snaps telling his boss what everyone actually thinks about her, before smashing a keyboard across the face of his former best friend as the displaced keys (and his tooth) spell out “Fuck You”. Angelina Jolie meanwhile slips effortless into her action heroine persona with the changes she brought to the character only adding to Fox rather than detracting such as her now largely silent persona through to the smaller details like the binary code list of targets she has tattooed on her arm making it easy to forget the fact that in the source material she looked more like Hallie Berry as its a role she unquestionably owns here.
The supporting cast are equally great thanks to the colourful characters they play with Konstantin Khabensky making his English language debut as “The Exterminator” reuniting with Bekmambetov after working on both Night Watch and Day Watch together with Bekmambetov seeing his casting as a way of having a familiar face on set and along with his fellow Russian Dato Bakhtadze who plays the knife expert “The Butcher” providing some of the best moments of the film, while both Common and Marc Warren clearly seem to be relishing having more meaty supporting roles than they are used to playing.
The real star though here though are the action sequences which give zero thought to their plausibility with Bekmambetov it could be argued using ideas he had left over from Night / Day Watch only with none of the supernatural elements to cover for this kind of randomness. That being said there is something so fun about watching a car chase in which a Porsche barrel rolls over a police blockade or watching Fox and Wesley play a game of capture the flag on a moving train. Perhaps because they are shot so care free and clearly within the confines of this universe than any kind of reality its never a push to accept any of this and just enjoy the ride. Shot with a mixture of crisp focus and gratuitous slow motion, while there might often be a lot happening in these actions scenes its easy at the same time to follow what's happening, while the ending might be the most gratuitous scene of gunplay since "Hard Boiled".
While I might not have liked the film much on that original viewing, upon returning to the film though I discovered that viewing it on its own merits there is a pretty fun popcorn action flick to be found here in the vein of “Shoot-em Up” or “XXX”. Yes it might not be the most realistic of films but when its this much fun who really cares?