Contrary to its etymology, this Fraternity is not just a man’s world.
It’s a stressful time in these here United States. Gas prices. Inflation. Unemployment. Global warming. Stupid wars. Foreclosures. So what do we want for a little escapism on date night? Apparently, we want Wanted. Ye-ah! Nothing like a little warmed over nihilism and a lot of eye-splitting action to lift the weekend spirits. It’s summer, dammit! Who cares if a back story about a group of weavers who decide to become a band of super assassins makes absolutely no sense in this or any universe? (Let me just repeat that: weavers become assassins. Weavers become assassins. Insert rotten joke about looming danger here.) Who cares if the twists and double-crosses are predictable yet still nonsensical? And who cares if Wanted’s provenance is so apparent that my friend whispered to me fifteen minutes in, “The first rule of Matrix Club: you do not talk about Matrix Club”? The boys just want to see Angelina Jolie do her thing. Right? That’s why Universal decided that the hard R actioner could indeed make headway during the summer, and thus moved it from its original March berth. Right?
Well, it seems the girls want to see it too. And even more, the girls want to see James McAvoy do his thing. Mmm, James McAvoy…. Anyway, that was my favorite factoid from the reports about Wanted’s Better Than Expected opening weekend box office: women wanted to see it as much as men. Once again, a studio is bowled over by the fact that women go to movies. Also, McAvoy was almost as big a draw as Jolie. Given that McAvoy is probably best known in this country for yearning so gorgeously over the infinitely boring Keira Knightley in Atonement, I’d have to surmise that it’s not the “male audience” per se that’s chomping at the bit to see him in Wanted. My, my, my. Could it be that all of those guys credited with “writing” the screenplay, and Kazakh flash-action (flaction?) maestro Timur Bekmambetov inadvertently crafted an action movie for chicks (as well as the expected adolescent boys of all ages)? I sure had a trashy good time.
Let’s look at the evidence. First, there’s the matter of Jolie, who sports the biggest picture and the biggest gun in the movie’s print ads as ace assassin Fox (subtle, these names). She has never really struck me as being much of a traditional girl’s girl, and not just because she allegedly committed the cardinal sin against the sisterhood of stealing another woman’s man (twice). She’s a little too Playboy-wet dream perfect. On the other hand, in that hard perfection and the sly glint that goes with it, she excels at becoming a female id gone wild (see Mr. & Mrs. Smith). Guys may salivate at the idea of being trapped by her leg in a speeding red sports car as she does all sorts of external acrobatics while shooting ever-larger firearms. They may drool helplessly as she steps out of the recovery tub in the Fraternity’s castle. And they may die a thousand little deaths when she slinks in to lay a big wet kiss on McAvoy as his virago ex-girlfriend berates him for being a loser. But it’s also a kick to watch her drive that car like that and blast away while wearing a floaty little white dress that screams “feminine.” It’s a hoot that the best, most trusted member of the Fraternity is a chick (she’s also the one with the moral compass, natch). And I’m sure there were a few ladies in the audience who wouldn’t mind snogging McAvoy. The hotcha reveal of McAvoy’s surprisingly buffed up bod late in the film certainly isn’t the stuff of hetero boy fantasies (as one industry commentator/wag noted, gay men are the often unacknowledged “fifth quadrant”). Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to say that women are showing up to see the bang-bang as well as the kiss-kiss.
Even though Jolie may look like the main draw on the poster art, however, she’s not Wanted’s protagonist. That honor, of course, belongs to McAvoy as wet noodle-turned-hard body Wesley. With his sarcastic voiceover, crap job, crap boss, crap girlfriend, crap best friend, and Ikea table, Wesley is yet another fed up drone from the Fight Club school of male malaise (Wesley’s crap American-Scottish accent, however, is strictly McAvoy’s fault). Now, Fight Club took its disquisition on male regeneration through violence very, very seriously. Some (i.e. me) might say too seriously. While I can’t say for certain what the intention was of the Wanted team, I’d hazard a guess that a movie featuring super slo-mo close-ups of speeding bullets engraved with “Goodbye” isn’t taking itself too seriously. Its nihilism is a bit of a larf (such are the times in which we live), which consequently takes the edge off of Wesley’s bitterness. Besides, it isn’t (just) women who make life hell of Wesley. It’s everyone. And Jolie’s Fox sure isn’t a distasteful perma-victim like Fight Club’s Helena Bonham Carter. All of which is to say that Wesley’s sourness doesn’t feel quite as exclusionary as Edward Norton/Tyler Durdan’s. His acting out stops being a strictly “male” reaction to his life, and simply becomes a reaction.
The circumstances of Wesley’s regeneration are similarly an off-kilter mix of gender signifiers that opens the door for the ladies in the audience. Take weaving, for instance. It’s one of those labors that used to fall under the rubric of “women’s/domestic work,” which makes the idea of weavers becoming assassins sound about as, um, unusual as knitters becoming sharpshooters. Even if one were to reach (and I mean reach) for the symbolic pseudo-roots of Wanted’s Loom of Fate, one would come upon the Three Fates in Greek mythology. That is, the three goddesses who spun a human’s life as yarn, measured it out, and cut it off at the appointed time. You can put Morgan Freeman’s Fraternity leader and loom interpreter Sloan, and Terence Stamp’s wise thread smith, front and center all you want, but it still won’t make weaving sound “manly.” I don’t care if Freeman taps his inner Sam Jackson to bellow “motherfucker.” He’s still dealing death through hankies. And after Wesley storms the factory and takes it down with double-fisted guns blazing (in an awesomely choreographed sequence of mayhem), he gets entangled in the destroyed loom while looking for Sloan. The yarn is mightier than the sword, and it’s an amusing contrast to the firepower.
Then there is the training. True, Wesley gets pummeled by Fox and company to harden him. He practices lots of stabbing techniques with large knives and a big burly bear of a man called The Butcher. He spends a lot of time whipping guns in a perfect arc in order to bend the path of the bullet (coooooool). He also learns how to use rats as bombs, i.e. torture small creatures. But how does he recover from it all? With a nice, long soak in a hot wax bath by candlelight. Add some floral scents, and you’ve got yourself a day at the spa! Right. Okay. Perhaps it’s really the Fraternity of Metrosexual Assassins (Wesley does inherit a very stylish leather jacket from his ace assassin dad). And did I mention that it’s after coming out of one of those soothing baths that McAvoy displays the muscled body hidden under Wesley’s wimp exterior?
It isn’t just the hot bath, though. It’s also the language of the training, the discourse that drives Wesley to bend those bullets. Fox and frat brother The Repairman repeatedly ask Wesley, “Why are you here?” as they pound him. Those daily punching bag sessions finally reach the next stage when Wesley responds with the theme driving untold numbers of self-help books: “I don’t know who I am!” Sloan may as well be channeling Oprah as he exhorts Wesley to discover whom he really is, to tap the potential that lies within him, to claim his “real” take-charge self. Granted, Sloan has nefarious ulterior motives, but still. Wesley absorbs those lessons of touchy-feely self-discovery so well that even when it all goes to hell in a bullet-ridden handbasket, he still can’t go back to his former life.
Which brings us back to Wesley’s snarky narration and its spin on the afternoon talk show mode of self-analysis. He doesn’t just shoot guns with flare. He’s acutely aware of how his entire encounter with the Fraternity has made him grow as a person (as it were). Like Fox, he has a moral compass and mega-weapons. He lists all the ways he has thrown off the self-defeating habits of his old life over the course of six weeks: quit a bad job and found his calling, dumped the bad mate and bad friend, and come to terms with his parents. He has taken control of his life (cue Dr. Phil). It’s a delightful fantasy for any put-upon soul, male or female. Then he asks the question Oprah et al. ask their femme-heavy audiences week after week: “What the fuck have you done lately?”
Oh come on, you know that’s how Oprah’s saying it on the inside.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.