Foreign directors often run into language difficulties as they make their first films in English, but not Soviet-born Timur Bekmambetov.
The dazzling stylist behind “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” knows intersecting bullets, skywalking automobiles and camera wizardry dazzle in all tongues. If the plot of “Wanted” tears apart the minute you try to grasp it firmly, so what? His wild Russian movies didn't make any more sense than this one.
“Wanted” has loosely the same framework as those predecessors: A secret fraternity of assassins has existed for centuries, presumably preventing evil from dominating the world. They're mortal in this incarnation, but they take orders from a supernatural loom that weaves the names of their victims into cloth patterns that must be decoded.
When the most gifted of them turns renegade and attempts to slay the holy slayers, the master of the order (Morgan Freeman) seeks the one man who can stop him: office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), who doesn't realize his genetic makeup allows him to curve bullets around stationary objects.
The disbelieving Wesley trains at the hands of enigmatic Fox (Angelina Jolie), submitting to brutal “indoctrination” by her co-workers as he toughens up. Then writers Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan spring their not-really-a-surprise, which leads to a climax so relentlessly bloody that I turned away. (Bekmambetov likes to see bullets go forward and backward through each part of a person's anatomy.)
Bloodlust aside, the director has remarkable visual ideas and a fine sense of pacing. He blends slow, fast and normal speeds cleverly, making old tricks look new, and does amazing things with cars: They crawl around the fronts of buildings, ride atop and then plunge into trains, spin through the air like gymnasts doing Olympic routines.
His movies are thrilling and ridiculous in equal measure, and I often laughed with incredulous approval as he wreaked havoc: The last bullet sequence is jaw-droppingly absurd, yet kind of cool. Even modest sequences contain visual jokes. Wesley smashes a computer keyboard into the face of the guy who's sleeping with his girlfriend, and the letters “---- you” fly through the air (alongside a dislodged tooth) slowly enough to get a laugh.
Acting is frequently beside the point in this kind of film, though Freeman and Jolie have the right iconic unflappability. Konstantin Khabensky, star of the “Watch” movies, has a small role as an assassin; so do Common, Thomas Kretschmann (“The Pianist”) and Terence Stamp.
McAvoy spends half the movie looking dazed and half looking crazed, as well he might. I interviewed him last September, after he had just finished shooting “Wanted.” I asked what it was about; he stroked a three-day beard and finally replied in his Scottish brogue, “Ah dawn't reelly knoo.” Well, I don't either, and I'm not sure Bekmambetov could explain it. But not every roller-coaster ride has to come with a map.