Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of five)

Wanted has been designed as a delivery system for intense, repeated brutality presented in a creative and nonsensical manner probably meant to prevent you from thinking too heavily about the really unconscionable nature of the story and characters, or about how much you’re thrilling to artful sadism and a fetishization of bloodshed.

And yet, I didn’t hate it. One hippie-ish biddy sighed and moaned repeatedly in protest of the jackhammer violence, but a lot of other people—including my companion, who’d say she’s no fan of the action genre—liked Wanted despite itself.

Ten days after the screening, I’m still trying to figure out why.

The story, in totality, is complete crap, requiring you to suspend belief in the basic workings of reality as much as The Matrix ever did, but without giving you the easy out of “it’s all in the craaaaazy computer world.” The plot twists in ridiculous ways that make absolutely no sense, key points are never explained, things are taken at ludicrous face value, as though the screenwriters were too indifferent or too stupid to make the story actually work.

Though the original comic book was stuffed with deeply recondite superhero trappings, which were wisely jetisoned, the basic story shouldn’t have been hard to translate: A young schlub, a hapless wimp in a cubicle world, is plucked by a gorgeous killer in fetishwear and trained to be an assassin. She and her associates show our young man a thrilling world in which he’s free of moral responsibility and powerful enough to take no crap from anybody. In the end, he’s caught up in complex machinations and has to decide whose side, and which world, he wants to pick. Sounds pretty good, right?

James McAvoy is great in his initial office misery, and the way he’s plucked out of that miserable world into a high-speed shootout is really nicely done. Once he’s ensconsed in a thousand-year-old brotherhood of assassins called The Fraternity, he is initiated via such violent hazing that Fight Club looks like an episode of Teletubbies. But Angelina Jolie isn’t given nearly enough to do. She smolders and scowls, all sexy danger, but it’s so much background. McAvoy’s enemy, the assassin who comes after him in the beginning, is never well defined until a predicable yet ridiculous info-dump comes in the last act. The leader of the Fraternity, Morgan Freeman, does a lot of exposition, but none of it adds up to anything coherent, really.

So why is this fun? Director Timur Bekmambetov keeps the film jumping, the brutality really does work our adrenal glands, and the film goes so out of its way to present superpowers, physical impossibilities, unexplained cosmic forces (God needs hit men?) and sheer nonsense (God needs hit men?) that the critical brain unplugs and you just enjoy the spectacle. And yet I thought The Cell and the Matrix sequels were among the crappiest stories ever burned onto celluloid. Perhaps one key to this movie’s surprising success is the transformation McAvoy is making—maybe we thrill to the power and promise of his new, not-quite-evil life, and the mission he’s on. Surely the fact that he is the hidden prince, destined for power like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, is appealing. But the film doesn’t make nearly as much of the moral ugliness or the sense of freedom the (mis)use of such power brings as the comic series did. I haven’t seen such conscious effort to prevent an audience from thinking outside a seminar on “intelligent design.” In the end, the movie is about killing the bad guy, with the caveat that the bad guy might not be who you think the bad guy is. Sigh.

Seriously, if anyone sees this movie and can figure out why it’s so much better than the sum of its ugly and ill-fit parts, let me know. It can’t be just the action; lots of films with action this well-made still suck. I’m stumped.