June 27,2008, 2008 -- It would be understandable to be leery of an action thriller that opens portentously with the words "A thousand years ago …" and then goes on to tell of an ancient "clan of weavers" who formed a murderous fraternity.
But this kind of inadvertent humor is combined with an intentionally snarky attitude and dark comedy to make Wanted (* * 1/2 out of four) more enjoyable than it ought to be.
Much of the entertainment value comes from jaw-dropping stunts and explosive action sequences, which are high-octane fun.
Yes, bullets bend, blood spews, cars crash and bodies are punched, stabbed and shot up. But the look of the film, as directed by Russian-born filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov ("Day Watch"), is highly inventive, even though the plot is inane and some of the dialogue is decidedly awkward or clichéd.
"Wanted", like the Matrix movies, has a stylized visual panache. Bullets from different directions move in slow motion and clash in midair, and a gunman leaps through a mirrored glass window, shattering it into brilliant shards while shooting relentlessly, suspended between building roofs.
Angelina Jolie is a sultry sight to behold, effortlessly pulling off outlandish and extreme maneuvers. In the scenic countryside of the Czech Republic, she jumps a boxy car into a moving train, where it lodges itself in one of the cabins, atop the seats.
She also pulls a variation of an Evel Knievel stunt and catapults the sports car she's driving over several police cruisers and a bus, firing off rounds at her target all the while.
The focus of the plot is on twentysomething accounting manager Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy, who projects an engaging anti-hero quality).
He spends most of his day in an office cubicle, quaking in fear of his obnoxious boss and popping pills to ease his panic attacks.
Although he is aware that his sleazy girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend, Wesley is such an emotional slacker that he doesn't bother to confront them.
But after being recruited by the weaver clan/assassination club, suddenly he finds he has the right stuff to shoot the wings off a fly.
Jolie and Morgan Freeman are key members of this weaving clan, toiling in a cloistered Chicago textile factory that looks like a Gothic castle.
Sure, their real trade is cloth, but they dabble in the killing business as well, carrying out the assignments designated by "Fate."
Freeman sermonizes about the Loom of Fate, another of those chortle-inducing features.
Apparently, when looked at under a microscope, weavings contain critical missed stitches that create a binary code spelling out the name of assassination targets. How refreshingly low-tech.
"Wanted" is silly and far-fetched. And if it didn't back up its ridiculous plot with spellbinding visceral energy, it would have been a dismal failure.
But the thrilling stunts and hyperkinetic action scenes are the undisputed stars of this surprisingly entertaining film. (Rating: R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Opens tonight in select theaters and Friday nationwide.)